State House to Battle Over Education Proposals

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House could be poised to pass two fiercely debated bills that would place restrictions on how issues about race, gender identity and sexual orientation are taught in public schools.

The House is scheduled to take up the bills Tuesday, after weeks of opposition critics such as LGBTQ-advocacy groups.

Sponsors have given the title “Individual Freedom” to the bill involving instruction about race (HB 7), and the measure is an outgrowth of a push by Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent the teaching of critical race theory. The bill related to instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation (HB 1557) has been titled “Parental Rights in Education.”

Despite the monikers, controversy continued Thursday as dozens of opponents turned out for a final committee meeting on the bill that would restrict instruction about gender identity and sexual orientation.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Harding, R-Williston, says in part that “instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Opponents have called the proposal the “don’t say gay” bill and alleged, in part, that it would further stigmatize LGBTQ people.

“If we are prohibiting discussion around sexual orientation, are we therefore prohibiting discussion around people being gay?” Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, asked Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee voted 13-7 to approve the bill along party lines.

But Harding said restricting sex- and gender-related instruction in younger grade levels is appropriate.

“I would also say that you could apply that to straight (sexual orientation). Again, we’re talking about kindergarten through third grade, children as young as 6 years old,” Harding said.

The other bill about race-related instruction is sponsored by Rep. Bryan Avila, a Miami Springs Republican who is a top lieutenant of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. It came after DeSantis announced a legislative proposal that he dubbed the “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act.

Like other Republicans across the country, DeSantis for months has targeted critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American institutions, from the workplace to classrooms. The State Board of Education last year passed a rule to prevent teaching of critical race theory, and the bill — while not specifically mentioning the theory — would effectively cement the ban in law,

The bill lists several race-related concepts that would constitute discrimination if taught in public schools or as part of workplace training programs. As an example, it targets instruction that would lead students to believe that a “person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.”

During a Feb. 1 committee meeting, Avila said the bill seeks only to ensure that lessons are taught in an “objective” manner.

“Nothing at all in this bill prohibits or does away with anything that is related to historical facts about slavery, about sexism, racial oppression, racial segregation and racial discrimination,” Avila said.

But Democrats and other opponents said it would limit teachers’ ability to discuss the realities of American history.

“History is not objective. Conversations are uncomfortable,” said Rep. Robin Bartleman, a Weston Democrat who is an educator. “I understand what this bill is trying to do, but … the only way you don’t repeat history is by discussing it. By having honest conversations. By not stifling teachers.”

Senate versions of the bills also have received initial committee approvals, though they have not reached the full Senate.

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