Florida Republicans advance HB 7, which could silence some classroom topics

schools classroom desks students
In this Thursday, March 11, 2021 file photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Nesquehoning, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Florida’s Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill Wednesday that state Democrats say is only fanning the flames of the state legislature’s partisan culture war. 

The Republican-backed House Bill 7, titled “Individual Freedom,” could restrict Florida educators from teaching sensitive topics – such as race, discrimination, and historical events like the Holocaust – in a way that could be construed as taking a side, or straying from objectivity. That’s a value held near and dear to the heart of the bill’s Republican sponsor, Representative Bryan Avila of Miami Springs.

“No individual is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race, or sex,” Avila insisted. House Bill 7, he said, outlines principles “that formed our great nation.”

Against “woke” instruction in Florida classrooms

The bill is the House version of “anti-woke” legislation brought forth by Governor Ron DeSantis last year. That proposal targets the teaching of critical race theory in Florida’s public K-12 schools – an issue that teachers and Democrats say doesn’t exist.

Rep. Avila’s bill seeks to prevent both students and workers from from being subject to workplace trainings or instruction that “compels” certain perspectives on topics of race, color, sex, or national origin. The bill, he argues, would protect the “individual freedom” of Floridians by prioritizing objectivity – and avoiding taking positions on issues of injustice.

Teachers object to the bill

But not everyone’s buying it. Namely, Democratic lawmakers – who are concerned the bill constitutes censorship – and the many members of the public who spoke out against the bill Wednesday during public testimony.

The opposing group included a lobbyist with the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state’s largest union of teachers and education support personnel.

“This bill has already created anxiety and confusion with teachers on how to teach what is accurate but difficult history,” said Michael Monroe, with the FEA. “Teachers know how to facilitate a sensitive conversation,” he added, “But this measure creates a very narrow line about professional teaching and objective teaching. This measure will subject our professional educators to frivolous disciplinary charges which will require them to defend themselves and to protect their teaching certificates and their reputation.”

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar shares these concerns. “I think we would worry about teachers being investigated, potentially disciplined for teaching what the curriculum demands we teach,” Spar told WMNF in a phone call Wednesday afternoon. He pointed out that teaching standards are already set by the state of Florida. Educators teach those standards based on the curriculum adopted by the school districts, often based on recommendations from the state of Florida.

Banning books in Florida’s public schools

In addition to its call for “objective” education, House Bill 7 could also ban books and other learning materials that make students feel uncomfortable, or guilty about their racial, ethnic, or gender identity. Representative Dianne Hart, a Democrat from Tampa, characterized this as bringing dystopian fiction to life. “This bill essentially allows for banning of books and literature that simply looks to educate,” Hart said, adding that it “cripples” the ability of Florida’s public educators to teach effectively.

As it is, Florida is facing a massive teaching shortage. And Hart expressed concern that this bill could exacerbate the state’s shortage of teachers of color in classrooms. Andrew Spar, with the FEA, echoed this. “We need to be doing everything we can to support and lift up the teachers and staff who work in our schools and make sure that they stay.”

When lawmakers question whether teachers can be trusted to teach course materials that enrich childrens’ knowledge of history – not indoctrinate them, as the bill’s text suggests – Spar says, this harms teacher morale. 

‘Whitewashing’ history

But it’s not just teachers and Democratic lawmakers who have concerns about the controversial bill. Michidael Ceard with the Florida Student Power Network, said the bill would likely censor books – like Toni Morison’s Beloved – that were foundational to her motivation to pursue higher education in literature and become an advocate for Florida students. “This bill would stop people from learning about Black experiences and history. It whitewashes history, when we know people of color makeup little over 48% of people in this state,” said Dael, a Haitian immigrant and self-described product of Florida’s public school system. “As someone who works with young people now, listened to their experiences, and have fought in solidarity against attacks on their lives and identity – I beg all of you, implore all of you, to stop HB 7.”

A representative of the Florida Citizens Alliance – an education-focused nonprofit that has loudly advocated for banning books that reference sex, gay marriage, and LGBTQ relationships from public schools – was one of the only members of the public to voice support for the bill. 

While opponents insist the bills would censor meaningful conversations in the classroom, House Republicans insisted on several occasions that it would not ban difficult topics of discussion – but added little clarification as to how the “objective” teaching standards would be enforced, how subjects like The Holocaust could be objectively taught, or how teachers should prepare to account for – as Hart described it – “regulating” the feelings of students made uncomfortable by classroom discussion.

Protecting Florida teachers 

Spar told WMNF the FEA is committed to using their resources to protect teachers, should they face disciplinary action or scrutiny for teaching hot-button topics and historical events from a place of truth.

“The Florida Education Association – along with both our national unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – made an unwavering commitment to all teachers who teach in our schools, that when they teach the truth and the honest history of our country, we will be there to defend them if anyone tries to come after them for teaching the truth.”

HB 7 advances through the Judiciary Committee

Despite heated debate, the GOP-dominated Judiciary Committee approved the measure Wednesday, along party lines, 14-7. It needs to clear two more committees before it can be considered by the full House.  Its twin in the Senate, Senate Bill 148, passed its first committee vote last week.

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