States

State Laws Restricting Curriculum, Pronoun Use Cause Confusion and Chaos in Schools

By Libby Stanford & Ileana Najarro — September 21, 2023 8 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference to sign several bills related to public education and increases in teacher pay, in Miami, on May 9, 2023.
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The school year at Alachua County public schools in Florida began Aug. 10. But days prior, as teachers finalized plans for the year, district leaders were confused about whether they were legally allowed to offer an Advanced Placement Psychology course.

That’s because in May, the course administered by the nonprofit College Board came under scrutiny by the Florida Department of Education for potentially violating the state’s Parental Rights in Education state law, which took effect in 2022 and bans instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation. The AP Psychology course includes instruction on these topics.

Throughout the summer and right up to Aug. 9, one day before the start of the school year, there was a public back-and-forth between the Florida state agency and the College Board over whether the state could make edits to the course (the College Board said no) and whether schools could in fact offer it in full (Florida finally clarified that yes, they could).

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The uncertainty about AP Psychology marks just one of the confusing scenarios school districts in Florida and across the country have encountered over the last few years as they seek to abide by a spate of relatively new laws that restrict instruction on race, gender, and sexuality. Such laws passed after highly charged debates, sparking strong opinions from opponents and proponents. Now, schools are left to carry out the often vaguely worded laws, many times without clear guidance from state education agencies. In Florida, the state’s guidance on AP Psychology changed by the day as the start of school approached.

“Since 2020, this is a first I’ve ever experienced as a parent of children in public schools, and now as an elected official,” said Tina Certain, chair of the Alachua County district’s school board, and president of the Florida School Boards Association. “We haven’t had this where you’re getting these vague laws and rules, where the department of education doesn’t give guidance on implementation, and then things come out at the very last minute.”

Since January 2021, 18 states have passed laws restricting teaching about critical race theory or so-called “divisive topics” such as race, gender, and sexuality, and at least 10 states have passed laws explicitly stating that teachers and staff don’t have to use students’ pronouns and names that align with their gender identity.

The laws have come under scrutiny from LGBTQ+ advocates, educators, and others who argue they sanitize facts about American history and actively harm students of color and LGBTQ+ students. Political views aside, the laws have also led to confusion, and sometimes chaos, in classrooms because of a lack of clarity or support from state education departments in implementing them, educators say.

We haven't had this where you're getting these vague laws and rules, where the department of education doesn’t give guidance on implementation, and then things come out at the very last minute.

The laws “really put everyone in this very difficult and sort of very awkward situation where you have vaguely defined laws, where it’s very unclear what exactly is prohibited,” said Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Then it’s also unclear to what extent it’s actually going to be enforced.”

‘Feeling so under attack’

Worried about jeopardizing teachers’ livelihoods by potentially violating state law, Certain’s district opted to offer alternatives to AP Psychology.

In April, the Florida board of education department had voted to expand the Parental Rights in Education, which critics commonly call the “Don’t Say Gay” law, to all grades. The policy also threatened to take away teachers’ licenses for defying the law.

The Alachua County district also had to remove an LGBTQ+ support guide due to new state rules over pronoun and bathroom assignments in schools, Certain said. The district had received a letter from the state education department stating the guide violated the Parental Rights in Education law, public radio station WUFT reported.

Certain said her district has already lost some teaching staff, both new and established.

“It is very difficult, and it’s very stressful for our educators. I mean, they’re feeling so under attack, underappreciated,” she said. “They’ve been underpaid for years. Now, they’re being told they’re indoctrinating students, and then these laws at the last minute where they’re just not allowed to operate as professionals. People just say they’re tired of it, they don’t want to deal with it anymore.”

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The Florida Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.

Districts outside of Florida have had to contend with similar changes in their states, attempting to comply with vaguely worded laws without much guidance.

In some Iowa districts, for example, students who go by Joe instead of Joseph or Kate instead of Katherine were sent home from the first day of school in August with forms asking their parents to approve the use of their nicknames because of a law intended to prevent teachers from hiding changes to a student’s gender identity from parents. Under the law, which took effect last year, schools are required to get parental consent to use a name different from the one listed on the student’s birth certificate. District leaders say they don’t have enough guidance from the state’s education department to know whether it applies to common nicknames, according to the Des Moines Register.

In Indiana, a similar law requires schools to notify parents if a student requests to go by a different name or pronoun.

Because the law is so vague and enforcement is unclear, lawyers in Indiana have advised district leaders to alert parents to any sort of name change request, including nicknames, according to the IndyStar. Meanwhile, parents told the newspaper that they’re confused and annoyed by the time commitment it takes schools to verify a name their child has always used.

It’s all a symptom of a highly political moment, in which schools have become a battleground for politicians seeking to raise their profiles, Valant said.

Education policy debates in the political sphere are nothing new, but they have traditionally focused on student achievement, with debates over topics like school choice, teacher quality, and school accountability, he said.

Now, “you have politicians who are using schools as a means to an end, and that end is about their own performance in elections that really doesn’t have anything to do with schools,” Valant said.

What’s at stake moving forward

The laws restricting instruction on race and gender and targeting students’ gender identities, often rooted in arguments to protect “parents’ rights,” are leading U.S. schools down a dangerous path, said Michael Apple, an education policy professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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Apple worries that the push to appease a loud minority of parents who want such restrictions and policies will, in turn, transform K-12 schools into a system in which parents with the loudest voices get the most say in what students learn.

“There’s nothing holding back a small minority of parents who are actually changing the meaning of democracy. Democracy, now, is simply choice. It’s like a market,” Apple said. Referring to the thinking of parents’ rights activists, he said, “‘We have the right to determine what our kids read, but because of that we have the right to determine what every kid reads.’ That’s a big shift.”

The current wave of conservative K-12 legislation isn’t going away anytime soon, Apple said. More states are passing laws that restrict teaching and limit transgender and nonbinary students’ rights to play sports, use bathrooms, and go by names and pronouns that align with their gender identity.

These laws’ staying power, though, largely depends on the outcome of the 2024 Republican primary, Valant said. Specifically, they hinge on the performance of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has risen to national prominence in part by championing such education policy changes in his home state, setting an example that Republicans around the country have emulated.

While DeSantis won reelection in Florida last year by a double-digit margin, he has struggled to maintain a competitive edge in the presidential primary against former President Donald Trump, and he’s modified his approach on the debate stage, avoiding the use of the word “woke,” which was previously a mainstay in his speeches and comments about schools.

“If DeSantis performs well through these primaries and if he becomes the nominee, I think one of the lessons that will be learned, right or wrong, by a lot of conservative politicians is that you can make a name for yourself in the Republican party by picking culture war fights in education,” Valant said. “I think that would be extremely unhealthy for schools.”

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Protesters cheer outside Senate chambers at the Indiana Statehouse on March 22, 2023, in Indianapolis. Indiana schools may soon be required to notify parents if their child requests a name or pronoun change at school, after state Senators on April 10, 2023, advanced a bill that some worry could out transgender kids to their parents.
Protesters cheer at the Indiana Statehouse on March 22, 2023, in Indianapolis. Indiana schools may soon be required to notify parents if their child requests a name or pronoun change at school, after state lawmakers advanced a bill that some advocates worry could out transgender kids to their parents.
Arleigh Rodgers/AP

To be sure, policies restricting classroom discussions and requiring parental notification of students’ name and pronoun changes haven’t had unchecked momentum.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, threatened to fine the Temecula Valley school board $1.5 million for rejecting state textbooks that mentioned Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and historical figure from San Francisco. And a San Bernardino County judge ruled against another California school district’s policy requiring parent notification if a student changes their pronouns, according to the Associated Press. The policy violated students’ civil rights, the judge said.

Last February, a group of students in Colorado Springs School District 11 protested a policy that would prevent teachers from asking for students’ pronouns, leading the school board to table the issue, according to The Gazette. The board has since drafted a different policy that does not mention pronouns, but prohibits teachers from requiring students to “render statements regarding personal or other inappropriate private matters.”

Certain, the Florida school board member, has heard from parents hoping that district leaders push back against the state laws in the Sunshine State. In the meantime, she worries about the national ramifications of Florida schools’ experience.

“As things go here in Florida, I think we start to see these things spill over into other states,” Certain said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2023 edition of Education Week as Laws Restricting Curriculum, Pronoun Use Cause Confusion and Chaos in Schools

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