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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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Searching for Common Ground: The Parental-Rights Bill, aka the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Bill

By Rick Hess — May 12, 2022 6 min read
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Pedro Noguera, the dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and I have a podcast (Common Ground: Conversations on Schooling) in which we dig into our disagreements and seek to identify common ground on some of the thorniest questions in education. I thought readers might enjoy perusing snippets of those conversations every now and then. Earlier this spring, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that gained national attention, particularly over a section about classroom instruction when handling topics of gender identity or sexuality. Today, Pedro and I discuss our takes on the bill.

—Rick

Rick: An issue that’s received extraordinary attention, of course, was Florida’s parental-rights bill. This is the bill that has been labeled by many on the left as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. What the bill actually says is that teachers aren’t supposed to have instruction in grades K-3 about issues of gender or sexuality and after 3rd grade, it should be age- and grade-appropriate, and that parents have rights to complain or even file suit when instruction does dive into this area. I’m not in favor of empowering parents to file suit, but the general framework seems reasonable. There are obviously individual children who experience issues related to gender and sexuality in grades K-3, but I don’t suspect that’s the norm. And in my experience, I’ve known very few K-3 teachers who are eager to talk about gender or sexuality in class.

Pedro: I think there’s a lot of complexity here. Let’s face it—there are lots of kids who are being raised by parents of the same gender, and other kids are going to be curious about why Johnny has two dads or two moms. To say we can’t talk about that is unrealistic. Kids are going to ask questions, and teachers need to be able to talk to them. Teachers are going to have kids in the class, as my daughter has experienced already, that they are more comfortable in a different gender identity and want to be called by another name. What does a teacher do with that? To simply shut down the conversation and say we’re not going to talk about it is unrealistic and unhelpful. It really puts an unnecessary threat on teachers who are faced with how they should respond to these issues as they arise, and realistically, we can be sure that they will arise. We live in a diverse society where everybody’s not comfortable talking about issues related to sexuality, but we have to get used to it, because people are not going back into the closet.

Rick: I don’t think I disagree with what you just said. There may be common ground here. I’m pretty sure most schools have kids whose parents are in same-sex relationships. And we both know, kids ask a lot of potentially fraught questions, at the first opportunity. They ask about death—a lot—or where babies come from. We expect early-elementary teachers to develop the skill of giving kids enough information so kids don’t feel ignored but also aren’t getting into age-inappropriate conversations about death or notions of faith and afterlife. That’s just not what 2nd grade classrooms are set up to address, and I think that’s reasonable. Moreover, it seems to me there’s room, under the law, for teachers to explain, when students bring it up, “That’s right, Doug’s got two fathers. Some kids have two mothers. Some have a mom and a dad. Some children live with one parent or with grandparents. Loving families can take many forms.” Which is how we ask K-3 teachers to handle many topics infused with complicated, adult implications. It doesn’t strike me as unreasonable for parents to say they think that’s where schools should draw the line for young kids. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge when kids do bring up questions about gender and sexuality, they deserve to be heard and to be safe. I don’t see that as inconsistent with the law, either. I wonder if we’ve turned this more into an either/or conversation than is actually necessary.

Pedro: This is why I think what the state of Florida did is a huge mistake and wrong. It would have been different had this governor and legislature said: “Here is some guidance on how schools should address these issues. These are things we think you should do. These are the things we think you should not do.” That would be reasonable because guidance is needed. And they should obviously draw on experts because, in my opinion, most education issues should be nonpartisan. I think what the governor has done is make this issue highly partisan, highly political, and he has now placed teachers in a position where they are worried that they may say the wrong thing and be sued because a child asked an innocent question. Recently, my daughter was visited by a child who was biologically a girl but said she now wanted to be called by a boy’s name. When it was time to take a bath, my daughter asked her, “Do you want to take a bath with me?” and the child was hesitant but said OK. Then my daughter asked her, “You used to be a girl, right?” She said, “Yeah.” My daughter just replied, “OK.” They were cool with it. It was not a big issue. So I think kids are way ahead of the adults on this. The adults have more issues, and the politicians are screwing things up in Florida and other places, because we are not going backward. And if we try to censor people, we’re just going to make it more difficult.

Rick: A lot of what you’re saying resonates with me. But, for instance, there’s this fight brewing in Wisconsin where the teacher trainers told teachers they have an obligation to hide children’s gender identity from their parents, even at the youngest grades. Heck, they told these teachers that telling parents what’s going on is child abuse. That strikes me as nuts. This isn’t about recognizing that societal norms and gender expectations evolve over time. This is about whether school districts have the right to hide important information from parents or make value-laden decisions without involving parents. I’m shocked there’s anyone who doesn’t think most parents will push back on that. This gets to the essence of parenting. Yet, we see adults who don’t live in the community and don’t actually know or teach these children trying to box out parents and push educators to wall off parents from their kids and schools. Fortunately, I’ve generally found that actual teachers—who interact with kids all day—are less wedded to these ideological agendas than the out-of-town trainers. I wonder if the solution lies there, and if focusing more on building the bonds of trust between local teachers and families could alleviate a lot of this. Because, while the advocates, trainers, and politicians wind up dealing in abstractions and absolutes, I’ve frequently been struck that those who actually know the children find it easier to locate common ground.

Pedro: I do question a lot of the experts that are brought in by school districts. I think there’s often not real vetting of who these consultants are and the value of the trainings they offer. But I also think that we’re in a period of a great deal of change, and schools are at the forefront of trying to figure out how to respond to these changes. Parents need to work with the schools rather than get into adversarial relationships, because we have to figure out the best approach here for children.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. To hear the rest of the conversation, check out Episode 11 of Rick and Pedro’s Common Ground Podcast, “Parent Rights and the Florida Bill.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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