Florida residents who view state-approved school textbooks as “too liberal” and some books in school libraries as inappropriate have persuaded state lawmakers to push legislation that would make it easier for them to object to classroom materials they don’t like.
“Today, parents are purposely blocked from being involved in their children’s education,” said Hamilton Boone, a Brevard County father who tried unsuccessfully to get the novel “Beloved,” a Pulitzer-Prize winning work, removed from his son’s high school library in 2015.
Under the proposed bills (HB 989 and SB 1210), residents could more easily object to books, textbooks and other classroom materials, review volumes in school libraries and, if needed, argue their views before an “unbiased and qualified hearing officer” who could deem the items unsuitable and require they not be used. Now, residents can protest materials, but they take their complaints only to the local school board.
Critics of the bills, however, view them as an attempt at censorship that will undermine educational quality.
Boone and his wife — who called Toni Morrison’s novel “pornographic material” — are among 25 people who have written affidavits contending that local school boards have ignored their pleas about objectionable books and assignments in public schools. Lawmakers have cited the affidavits to explain why a new law is needed.
The current process, Boone’s wife, Penny, wrote in her affidavit, is “geared 100% against the parent.”
The House version of the bill is ready for a vote by the full chamber. The Senate bill has one more committee stop.
The proposals have alarmed some science advocates, who fear the measures could lead to books that tackle controversial but required scientific topics, such as evolution, being removed or to those subjects being axed from class lessons.
In one of the affidavits, for example, a Martin County resident wrote about her objections to a textbook used in an Advanced Placement course. “Presentation of evolution as fact … The vast majority of Americans believe that the world and the beings living on it were created by God as revealed in the Bible,” wrote Lynda Daniel.
Several groups, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, have written a letter to lawmakers urging the bills’ defeat. Some also worry the legislation could force schools districts to hold several time-consuming hearings, even if the objections to a textbook come from one resident who may not have children in the public schools.
“If this bill becomes law, school boards will become inundated with demands that certain books be outright banned and that schools must discontinue using textbooks that don’t mesh with a vocal minority’s ideological views,” wrote Brandon Haught, a Volusia County high school science teacher and member of the group Florida Citizens for Science.
The bills are a “disaster” and would mean school boards would have to deal with “nonsense complaints” in a process that gives “protesters on a crusade nearly equal weight in the instructional materials selection processes as education and subject matter experts,” he said.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the Senate sponsor, said the bills are an effort to close loopholes in a 2014 law and make sure residents have a way to challenge school books they view as inappropriate.
Most school textbooks purchased by Florida’s 67 school districts come from a list of state-approved instructional materials. And in most counties, residents likely won’t object, Lee said.
But, he added,“there are some counties where the constituents … believe that the instructional material being vetted by the state is too liberal and therefore some of the instructional material has inappropriate information by their community standards.”
The majority of the affidavits are from residents of Collier County in southwest Florida.The House bill is sponsored by a Collier resident, Rep. Bryron Donalds, R-Naples. Donalds’ wife, Erika, is on the Collier County School Board and a member of the Florida Coalition of School Board members, a 3-year-old group that espouses conservative principles.
Collier resident Yvonne Isecke wrote in her affidavit that when her oldest child began middle school, she noticed “very disturbing content” in the curriculum, including “sexual explicitness, Anti-Americanism, political and Islamic indoctrination.”
She said she complained “to no avail” to teachers, the school principal, the superintendent and school board members.
The affidavits were collected by the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, a group whose focus is to “stop federal overreach and restore our individual rights.”
Ruth Melton, director of advocacy services for the Florida School Boards Association, said her group believes residents should be able to voice their views about school books. But it has some concerns about the bills, such as whether they will mean residents could continue to file protests long after school boards have voted to adopt textbooks for use in upcoming classes.
“Have we created language here that just invites challenge and litigation?” she said. “How could this go sideways?”
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