Florida bills on banned books and race-based education go to Senate vote

The Florida Senate moved forward on Tuesday with controversial educational measures that would increase scrutiny of school library books and limit how certain race-related concepts are taught, though senators amended one of the bills passed by the House last month.

The Senate Rules Committee voted 11 to 5 along party lines to approve the measure involving the textbook review (HB 1467), preparing the issue for consideration by the full Senate.

An extension of the recent Republican push to increase parental rights and involvement in student education, the measure largely centers on granting parents and members of the public broader access to the selection process. – and disposal – of library books and teaching materials.

Bill sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, said the measure would “help the community understand” what materials students might encounter in the classroom.

“It’s about transparency and making sure parents know exactly what’s being taught in their schools,” said Gruters, who is also Florida Republican Party chairman.

Under the bill, committees that meet for the purpose of “grading, eliminating or selecting” instructional materials would be required to include parents of students in the school district.

Similarly, the proposal would require school districts to post media center procedures on individual school websites. These procedures should provide for the “regular removal or discontinuation” of books based on factors such as alignment with state academic standards and relevance to the curriculum.

If instructional materials are removed from a school using the procedures outlined in the bill, state school districts will be notified.

The state Department of Education would be responsible for publishing and regularly updating a list of materials that have been removed or discontinued as a result of objections, and in turn, the department would “publish the list to school districts for consideration in their selection procedures”.

Gruters said other districts would be notified of banned materials “so that we have consistency, district to district, of which books have been banned only.”

The measure drew strong objections from Democrats, who drew comparisons between the changes proposed in the bill and historical examples of censorship by authoritarian governments.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, called the measure “really scary stuff” and compared its proposals to the book burnings in 1930s Nazi Germany.

“It is common knowledge that the burning of books was an integral part of the propaganda campaign which led to the Nazi Party taking control of Germany,” Farmer said.

The Senate committee approved an amendment to the bill to cap school board members at 12 years. The House passed the measure earlier this month with eight-year term limits for school board members.

Gruters, who is chair of the Senate Education Committee, moved the amendment. If the full Senate passes the bill with 12-year term limits, the measure is expected to return to the House.

“I think 12 is a better number,” Gruters said. “Sometimes I feel like eight years is not enough for members. And I think 12, you should definitely be able to do anything you want to accomplish in that time.

Danielle Thomas, director of advocacy and legislative services for the Florida School Boards Association, argued that school board elections already provide for a regular turnover of members.

“We do not believe that term limits are necessary for members of our school boards. School boards see more turnover in their elections than any other elected office,” Thomas said, telling lawmakers Florida school boards have collectively seen 36-46% turnover in every election cycle since 2010.

Later Tuesday, the rules committee also voted 11-5 along party lines to approve a measure (HB 7) that would target certain race-related instructions in schools and workplace training sessions. The bill emerged after Governor Ron DeSantis sought to prevent the teaching of critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American society and institutions.

Under the measure, which is set to go to the full Senate, a school instruction or training exercise would constitute discrimination if it “forces” people to believe certain concepts.

For example, part of the bill dealing with schools would label teaching as discriminatory if it led students to believe that they are “personally responsible and must feel guilt, anxiety or other forms of psychological distress” due to actions committed in the past by people of the same race or sex.

Democrats peppered Senate sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, with questions about the bill.

“What is the impetus for this line of thought, that a teacher would create an imposition of guilt on a student because they talk about history?” asked Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

“The impetus would be to have all of these constructive discussions and to make sure that our students learn our history, including the mistakes and the terrible things that have happened in our past so that they are not repeated, without pushing guilt to the individual student,” Diaz replied.

Critics have also questioned the process used by Senate Republican leaders to advance controversial education bills.

During debate on the bill dealing with books and school boards, Farmer suggested that Republicans were engaging in what he called a “two-step Tallahassee.” Both House bills had similar Senate versions that had not passed through all of their assigned committees.

“We have a rule in the Senate for House bills, if we are going to address them when we have not addressed a Senate bill or a Senate bill has not crossed its committees, it’s supposed to require two-thirds votes. So it’s a little two-stage Tallahassee here, where they bring the bill out of the House, send it to a committee, vote it out of that committee, and then he has to go to the ground so you don’t have to two-thirds vote,” Farmer said.

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