States

Florida’s Edicts on Schools Keep Changing, and Local Districts Are Confused

By Jeffrey S. Solochek, Tampa Bay Times — September 14, 2023 7 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Miami.
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Florida school district leaders say frustration is mounting as they try to enforce new education laws regarding gender issues, sex, library books and race.

They say vaguely written rules, changing directives and confusing guidance from state officials are hampering efforts to comply — even as potentially heavy penalties await them if they don’t.

The dysfunction has bred mistrust. Many leaders hesitate to take Florida’s education commissioner, Manny Diaz Jr., at his word, according to current and former district officials. It has led to uncertainty for educators who say they’d prefer to teach students without political interference.

Yet politics loom large as Gov. Ron DeSantis has made public education central in his campaign for president. His focus has forced schools to pivot from the classroom to grapple with broader cultural issues — where consensus often is elusive.

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Presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at The Gathering in Atlanta, on Aug. 18, 2023.
Presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at The Gathering in Atlanta, on Aug. 18, 2023.
Ben Gray/AP

Since the end of the spring legislative session, Florida’s State Board of Education has adopted 63 rule changes, with another 19 still in draft. By comparison, the board adopted 65 changes during the same time period last year.

“I don’t think the relationship has ever been as poor” between districts and the Department of Education, said Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook, who has dealt with 10 education commissioners during her six terms in office.

“We’re kind of in flux trying to do what we’re required to do but not knowing exactly how they want us to do it,” she said.

“Just give us an answer, yes or no, and we’ll know which way to go,” said longtime Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, discussing his frustrations over the state’s recent handling of the Advanced Placement Psychology course.

“There’s a lot of angst out there, a lot of fear and worry,” said Bill Husfelt, who recently retired after 15 years as Bay County superintendent. “Everybody is afraid to make a mistake.”

The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Throwing their hands up’

Pinellas lately has come under fire from some parents and residents who have demanded certain books be removed because of pages containing sex and violence. Some have taken to reading explicit passages aloud at board meetings, a so-far unsuccessful strategy aimed at convincing the board to pull books without going through its formal objection process.

That effort comes as the board continues to draft rules for buying and reviewing books to comply with state law.

“We’re on our third time of looking at the policy (since January),” Cook said, noting that the state keeps revising rules and creating new ones. “That’s frustrating, and people are just throwing their hands up.”

The Department of Education earlier this month held another workshop related to the handling of book objections, which districts will have to follow once it’s complete. The few participants in the online session noted that the state had asked for feedback but didn’t provide written proposals to review.

Complaints have grown statewide about the Department of Education’s directions on books, including the instruction to “err on the side of caution” when choosing titles. It offered little guidance beyond warnings to avoid materials that are harmful to minors.

At the same time, anti-censorship groups criticized state officials for another communication lapse. They said the department failed to tell districts that state laws restricting instruction about gender identity do not apply to the selection of library books — a key fact that the state’s lawyers had already made in a court case.

Adding to the strain are the high stakes. New laws and rules set penalties that might be imposed against teachers, administrators and district officials who do not follow the latest requirements on books, classroom instruction and other hot-button issues.

“Nobody wants to be on the front page for doing it,” said Husfelt, the former Bay County superintendent. “The idea that you can teach now without worrying about the consequences is gone.”

Changing messages

State officials had demanded that the College Board, which provides the Advanced Placement Psychology course, promise to comply with a rule limiting instruction on gender identity through 12th grade. The College Board bristled, saying it would not remove any lessons on that topic or recognize any courses from schools that attempted to alter the content.

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Concept image of hand grabbing book from library shelf with an outline of the state of Florida overtop of image.
Conceptual: Liz Yap/Education Week; iStock/Getty/DigitalVision Vectors

When superintendents sought direction from the state, several said they got different messages each time they asked.

First, department officials said during a conference call that the course could be taught as written, recalled Browning, the Pasco superintendent. Then, he said, they started talking about alternate courses offered by the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge International organizations.

“If we could teach AP Psych, why are they giving us all these alternatives?” Browning wondered.

He, along with several other superintendents, decided to consider the other options, just to be safe. But when word spread, to the dismay of thousands of students who planned to take the AP course, commissioner Diaz shifted gears. He sent superintendents a letter saying the AP course could be taught in its entirety, in an age- and developmentally appropriate way.

Unsure what that meant, Browning stuck with the Cambridge alternative. “We’ve gotten so jaundiced,” he said. Only after a second clarifying letter from Diaz did Browning and other superintendents return to their original plans.

“What superintendents are looking for is guidance from the department in writing, so it ensures uniformity” rather than guessing, said Browning, a Republican in his 12th year as superintendent. “Districts were stuck in the middle, trying to interpret.”

When things were clearer

When Pam Stewart served as education commissioner from 2013 to 2019, local school officials often complained that the department did not move quickly enough to explain how to implement laws and rules. But the threat of penalties — such as loss of salary or certification, or removal from office — were not part of the landscape then.

After former House Speaker Richard Corcoran succeeded Stewart, the department became much more strict in the creation and enforcement of rules. But Corcoran made it clear what was expected and what would happen if districts didn’t comply.

That was the case when Alachua County, along with about a dozen other school districts, chose to impose mask mandates during the pandemic, flouting state instructions that masks must be voluntary. Tina Certain, Alachua’s school board chairperson, said everyone involved knew they faced financial penalties for that choice.

Now, she said, the district does not have clarity as it attempts to rewrite guidelines regarding gender identity and sexual orientation — topics that are restricted under the new laws.

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A Safe Space sticker designating a supportive place for LGBTQ people is viewed outside of a classroom door at a high school on Aug. 8, 2023, in Orlando, Fla.
A Safe Space sticker designating a supportive place for LGBTQ people is viewed outside of a classroom door at a high school on Aug. 8, 2023, in Orlando, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack via AP

State officials told the district that its previous policies and procedures did not match state law, she said. Yet as the district worked to rewrite its documents, “they won’t review the guide and tell you” if it’s OK, she added, “The law is pretty vague.”

Many in the community want the prior version, which supports diversity and inclusion, she said, but the state won’t allow it. And if the teachers are found to have violated the law, they could lose their state certification.

“It’s been challenging,” said Certain, also president of the Florida School Boards Association. “I’m really concerned about public education and where we’re going to land.”

She suggested the department is acting politically, a view shared by many others. That includes state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Miami Gardens Democrat who has worked closely with Republicans Corcoran and Diaz in the Legislature.

Jones noted that, as commissioner, Corcoran participated more than once in public forums the senator organized, shrugging off hostile crowds that attacked the department’s policies. Diaz, by contrast, agreed to attend a recent forum on the state’s controversial new African American history standards but backed out at the last hour.

“Truth be told, as the governor runs for president, the last thing he needs right now is having any agency heads out there talking off the cuff,” Jones said. “It’s 100% politics.”

Getting in sync

If Florida’s public schools are to survive and thrive, this relationship has to improve, said Addison Davis, who recently resigned after three years as Hillsborough County superintendent. Davis also served four years as superintendent in Clay County.

“Superintendents can’t lead in fear,” he said. “They can’t be worried about what might be coming.”

He suggested that the Department of Education and school district leaders need more regular interactions to discuss implementing laws and rules, as well as best practices to achieve the primary goal of improved student learning.

“We have to get to a point where we’re all in the same boat together working for children,” said Davis, now an education consultant. “We have to figure out how to get in sync.”

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Copyright (c) 2023, Tampa Bay Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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