Fees proposed for excessive challenges to school books in Florida

banned books, First Amendment
Banned books. Displayed at The Hive St. Pete. By Seán Kinane/WMNF News (Aug. 2023)

By Ryan Dailey ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Amid widespread controversy about removing books from school shelves, the Florida House is moving forward with a bill that could lead to fees for people who challenge numerous library books or learning materials.

The House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee on Thursday approved a bill (HB 7025) that calls for people who make objections to more than five instructional materials during a calendar year to be assessed $100 for each additional objection. The proposed fees would apply to “a parent or resident who does not have a student enrolled in the school” where the material is located.

School districts would have to return money to people if their objections are upheld.

The fee issue is included in a broader House bill about school regulations. The Senate last week passed a package of three school “deregulation” bills that are a priority of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. The Senate package did not include the fee requirement.

Challenges to school library books and instructional materials based on claims that they contain inappropriate content has become a political battleground in recent years.

According to a House staff analysis, Florida had 1,218 objections to books and other materials during the 2022-2023 fiscal year, resulting in 386 books being removed from schools.

“Over half of the objections came from two school districts, Clay and Escambia. Clay County district schools reported 489 objections that resulted in removal of 177 book titles. Escambia County public schools reported 215 objections that resulted in the removal of nine book titles,” the analysis said.

Members of the Republican-dominated House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee voted unanimously Thursday to advance the bill, after arguments from people on both sides of the larger debate about school-book scrutiny.

Ryan Kennedy, a program manager with the Florida Citizens Alliance, opposed the fee part of the bill.

“At Florida Citizens Alliance, we’ve been advocating for the removal of obscene materials. We just want to make sure that this is not a hindrance to that process,” Kennedy said. “For example, Collier County recently removed over 300 books. With that five-book challenge threshold, that would be a lot of people you would need to get to object to books. The school district removed it, they found those books objectionable.”

But Sue Woltanski, chairwoman of the Monroe County School Board, supported the proposed fees. Woltanski argued, in part, that processing book objections in large volumes can be a challenge for small school districts.

“I’m sure you’ve seen the data that the majority of the books that are being challenged across the country come from 11 individuals, and two of them live here in Florida. And it is a cumbersome burden to small school districts to have to have staff to review those books in time,” Woltanski said.

Passidomo said Thursday she had “not yet looked into that” part of the House bill.

“It’s kind of different than our (deregulation) bill. I think we’ll work that through. I have not had any conversation with the (House) speaker about that provision. But we will. Just like everything else, we’ll get there,” Passidomo said.

Another major difference between the House and Senate legislation is that the Senate would remove requirements that high-school students pass the state’s 10th-grade English-language arts exams and an Algebra I end-of-course exam to graduate. The House measure does not include similar changes.

The House and Senate bills stem from a requirement in a 2023 law (HB 1) that massively expanded the state’s school voucher programs. The law directed the State Board of Education to make recommendations to the governor and Legislature to “reduce regulation of public schools.”

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