Florida’s legislature passed controversial bills in the past two weeks affecting conversations about race and racism in the classroom, as well as restricting younger students’ access to lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The bills—widely referred to as an anti-"woke” bill and a “Don’t Say Gay” bill—have been covered extensively in national media and even late night television. However, the actual language in the two bills is vague on details about what teachers could or couldn’t teach in the classroom. And in a highly polarized political environment, the bills’ details often have been mischaracterized.
The two measures are part of a nationwide, largely conservative push to limit lessons on systemic racism, sexism, gender and sexuality, and LGBTQ+ topics. Fifteen states have passed similar legislation over the past year, and 26 others have introduced bills attempting to restrict these lessons.
Here are some highlights of Florida’s legislation and what the bills actually do and don’t do:
The ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill
Formal Title: ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill
Legislative History: Called the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its critics, the measure was passed by the Florida legislature March 8 and awaits signature by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican.
Among the prohibitions: The seven-page bill prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade. Lessons for students older than 3rd grade have to be “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” The state education department will decide what “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” entails. However, none of these grades are receiving sex education currently, according to the Tampa Bay Times, so it is unclear how this law will impact classroom instruction.
Notification to parents: The bill requires schools to notify parents at the start of every school year about each health-care service offered at school and the option to withhold consent or decline any specific service. Schools must disclose any well-being questionnaires or health-screening forms they plan to administer to students in kindergarten through 3rd grade and seek parent permission before allowing students to respond to these forms. If schools violate any of these requirements, parents can file official complaints with the department of education or lawsuits against the district.
What it doesn’t do: Despite the term “Don’t Say Gay,” coined by critics of the bill, it does not mention the term “gay” or the LGBTQ+ community by name. Nor does it prohibit students at any grade level from talking about their LGBTQ+ family members or themselves, or acknowledging the existence of gay people, as some critics of the bill have claimed. However, Republican lawmakers and DeSantis have publicized their intentions to curb discussions on gender identity and the LGBTQ+ community through passing this bill.
The anti-'woke’ bill
Formal Title: ‘Individual Freedom’ bill
Legislative History: DeSantis first introduced a legislative proposal in December 2021 titled the “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (W.O.K.E.) Act” to “fight back against woke indoctrination.”
“We won’t allow Florida tax dollars to be spent teaching kids to hate our country or to hate each other,” DeSantis said in a news release about the bill. “We also have a responsibility to ensure that parents have the means to vindicate their rights when it comes to enforcing state standards.”
The final version of a separate bill was approved by the legislature March 10 and is expected to be signed into law.
Among the prohibitions: The 30-page bill limits training for employees and lessons for students that violate any of the concepts about race and racism listed in the bill. Those prohibited concepts include that an individual should feel guilt or anguish because of their race or sex, that someone is inherently racist or sexist because of their race or sex, or that “racial colorblindness” is a bad thing. A similar list of concepts is commonly found in laws and proposed bills across the country.
The vagueness of the banned concepts has led to a lot of uncertainty about how these bills will impact lessons on race and racism and has also led to teachers preemptively avoiding these lessons so as to not get in trouble for violating the law.
What it doesn’t say: The bill does not include the term “woke.” It does not ban all classroom instruction on race and racism. In fact, it requires teachers to teach about slavery, the Civil War, and contributions of Black and Hispanic Americans. However, it also requires these lessons to be taught in a way that does not violate the list of prohibited topics.
In his December 2021 press release, DeSantis claimed this bill would further his administration’s efforts to “ban Critical Race Theory and the New York Times’ 1619 project in Florida’s schools.” However, the final version of the bill does not mention critical race theory, neither does it explicitly mention the 1619 project, a New York Times collection of essays aiming to highlight the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.
A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2022 edition of Education Week as Inside Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ and Anti-‘Woke’ Measures