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Florida Republicans are pushing for more parent oversight of school books

Dozens of books were made available to students at the Curls for Queens event on September 18 (Craig Moore/ WFSU Public Media)
Talia Blake
Dozens of books were made available to students at the Curls for Queens event on September 18 (Craig Moore/ WFSU Public Media)

Some parents have long found fault in what their students are exposed to in schools. Traditionally, the issue that’s generated the most friction is sex education. Today, that friction is amplified amid ongoing blowback to issues around race and gender. Karen Moran, with a group called BEST SOS America, came to the Senate’s Education Committee hearing on Senate Bill 1300 to raise concerns to lawmakers.

“We have porn, we have critical race [theory], we have gender confusion and other objectionable materials in our schools," Moran said, before reading aloud from a book called “It Feels Good To Be Yourself,” which explains gender identity to children.

Moran claimed there were 112 copies of the book in Palm Beach Libraries. A search of the county’s library system turned up no references. A spokeswoman for the school district is looking into the claim. An attorney from Palm Beach alleged one of its charter schools showed children LGBTQ cartoons, but when pressed, declined to name the school.

A proposal by Republican Sen. Joe Gruters was originally aimed at knocking school board salaries following two years of battles over school closures, quarantines and mask-wearing. Gruters’s proposal tries to counter a House plan that would strip local school board members of their salaries—instead, Gruters wants to place a cap on those salaries so they don’t exceed what state lawmakers make.

“The House has zero for their starting point, I believe people should be compensated and that will continue on in this discussion. I think what we get paid is fair enough for what the school board members should be paid," he said.

He also amended his bill to include lengthy language around instructional materials—and how they are approved and vetted. The plan requires school boards to post those materials online, have a process for approval and removal, and give parents a bigger say in what stays and what goes. Review committees would have to include parents with children in public schools. Where Gruters sees an effort to increase transparency, others see censorship.

“You’re having other people make choices for other peoples’ children. I don’t think you should ban books because someone is bothered. Because the reality is there are transgender kids…it’s the biology of sexual orientation. We’re not all heterosexuals. And most people with a loving heart, I would hope, are not offended by that," said a person who identified themself as Susan Etker.

Much of the public comment about the bill, especially surrounding issues of race and sexual and gender identity, upset several senators, like Democrat Shevrin Jones, an openly gay Black man.

“As you go and you advocate—and please do, advocate for your children, I support that—but be careful in how you advocate to make sure you’re not harming anyone. My dad always taught my brothers and I that as you lead and speak, lead and speak with love.”

While the bill is backed by Republicans, not every Republican lawmaker is 100% on board with it. Sen. Travis Hutson is one of them. While he did vote in favor of the measure and pushed back against critics who claim it promotes censorship—Hutson says censorship is already here since parental input usually isn’t considered when schools choose instructional materials. Yet he chafes at the plan to cut school board member salaries.

“Where I have serious reservations is the punitive damages we’re putting on school boards that take away or limit their salaries. I don’t think they need to be punished for the decisions they make, even though I may not agree with them."

Gruters says he’s not trying to punish school districts. But school districts don’t feel that way. The original version of the bill would have required school boards to give people at least three minutes to speak during meetings—even if those comments personally targeted board members.

The revised version of the plan removes that language, to the relief of school boards that have come under a barrage of abuse and threats within the past two years.