FL House fast-tracking contentious K-12 bills that could impact public education for years to come

By: - March 30, 2023 7:56 pm
Teacher in her classroom

Teacher in her classroom. Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images

The Florida House is fast-tracking several big changes to Florida’s K-12 education system — for better or worse.

The legislation involved — a roundup of several education bills — includes prohibiting further discussions on LGBTQ+ topics in classrooms, determining the start times of middle and high schools and removing books from classrooms and school libraries among other controversial measures.

Lawmakers in the House asked questions on Thursday and will likely debate and vote on the measures Friday.

The Senate and Gov. Ron DeSantis would have to approve the legislation as well.

Here’s a roundup of some of the impactful bills:

Pronoun, library books, LGBTQ+ topic restrictions

Lawmakers spent the most time discussing the highly contentious legislation that LGBTQ+ advocates say target gay and transgender students. Advocates for gay and transgender students see the bill, HB 1069, as a successor to last session’s “Parental Rights in Education” law, referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The 2023 legislation places restrictions on how pronouns can be used in public schools. It allows parents, or even non-parents, greater access to challenge school books and get them removed off of library or classroom shelves for an unknown period of time. It expands a current prohibition on classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity from just kindergarten to encompass grades PreK through 8th grades.

In addition, the legislation requires that any materials regarding education on reproductive health be approved by the Florida Department of Education.

Another aspect to the bill is a statewide definition of the word “sex,” which is defined in the legislation as: “means the classification of a person as either female or male based on the organization of the body of such person for a specific reproductive role, as indicated by the person’s sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth.”

Democrats offered several changes to soften the blow of the bill for the LGBTQ+ community, but none of the amendments were approved.

For example, Rep. Angie Nixon of Duval County offered an amendment to affirm that “a student of a public K-12 educational institution may be referred to by his or her preferred personal title or pronouns,” but that amendment was voted down.

The bill sponsors, Rep. Adam Anderson and Rep. Stan McClain, said that the amendment was counter to the goals of the bill. Anderson represents part of Pinellas County. McClain represents areas in Northeast Florida.

Rep. Ashley Gantt, who represents part of Miami-Dade County, submitted an amendment to define perimeters around what qualifies as “classroom instruction” to address criticisms that the bill is too vague. That didn’t pass either.

Rep. Michele Rayner high-fiving students protesting at the Florida Capitol Building. Mar. 3, 2022. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby of the Tampa Bay area wanted to change language in preexisting Florida statute regarding reproductive health education that says a school shall teach “abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age students while teaching the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage.” She wanted to strike out the word “heterosexual” to be more inclusive to same-sex marriage.

Rayner-Goolsby is gay and is married to a woman. The GOP House members voted against her amendment.

Rayner-Goolsby told lawmakers that those who voted down on her amendment view her marriage as less legitimate than a heterosexual marriage.

“You have said that people who love like me do not matter, and our marriages do not matter. And I, and the people of Florida, will remember that,” Rayner-Goolsby said.

Many other amendments were offered by Democrats, and all failed.

Partisan school board elections

Another education bill focused on whether locally elected school board members — currently nonpartisan officials who operate Florida’s school districts — should have new partisan elections.

That would mean that candidates for school board members would be identified as a Democrat, a Republican, another minor party or no-party affiliation during elections.

State GOP Rep. Spencer Roach has served in the Florida House since 2018 (Photo credit: Spencer Roach’s office.)

HJR 31 would give Florida voters an opportunity to decide the matter through a ballot initiative that would change the Florida Constitution.

Rep. Spencer Roach, who is sponsoring HJR 31, claims that school boards are becoming increasingly partisan, and that voters should have all information about a candidate available — including their party affiliation.

“In this last election, Governor DeSantis endorsed 30 school board candidates in the last election cycle of governor, and (former) Congressman Crist endorsed a number of candidates,” he told House lawmakers. Roach is a Republican who represents counties in Southwest Florida.

“You may or may not be shocked to know that not a single one of the 30 candidates that Governor DeSantis endorsed was a Democrat. And you may be equally shocked to know that of the candidates that governor Crist endorsed, not a single one of them was a Republican,” Roach said.

Middle, high school start times

Classroom. Credit: Getty Images

One major change that could come to all Florida schools is a restriction one when middle and high school students can start their school day. Florida lawmakers are considering prohibiting middle school from starting earlier than 8:00 in the morning and high school from starting earlier than 8:30.

Bill sponsor Rep. John Paul Temple, Sumter and part of Hernando County, says that middle and high school students are not getting enough sleep, which is impacting their academics and mental health.

But some lawmakers are concerned that the time change will be difficult for all 67 traditional school districts to accommodate. Issues implementing the bill could include the number of bus drivers available in the district or working around the work schedules of low-income families.

But Temple noted that school districts would have until 2026 to figure out the logistics of implementing the new school start times, according to the bill.

Social media use in schools

TikTok.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Florida students may soon see new restrictions on their ability to access popular social media sites like TikTok in schools, according to HB 379, sponsored by Rep. Brad Yeager, a Republican who represents part of Pasco County.

Under this bill, school district computers and other technologies would be prohibited from allowing students to access the popular social media site TikTok and others. The bill also calls for required instruction of internet safety in grades 6th through 12th, which must include instruction on the negative effects of social media on mental health, among other topics.

The legislation requires that a school district implement the “filtering of Internet websites so that a student device cannot connect to social media sites using district-owned computer servers.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.

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