Florida’s legislative session is set to begin on Tuesday, and with that, a bevy of bills and proposals to be debated and ultimately passed or killed. The contentious dissensions carried out by lawmakers oftentimes predicate on the current year’s hot-button issue, and 2022 is no exception, with a large portion of proposed legislation centered around schools.
On the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools nationwide metamorphosed into political battlegrounds centered around parents’ rights and regulation of curriculum, with Florida leading the charge in many facets. In a recent set of elections in Virginia, GOP candidates swept the floor, winning the Governorship, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General races while also overtaking Democrats to control the House of Delegates.
When analyzed in the days that followed, experts deduced a common rallying topic among GOP voters: Critical Race Theory (CRT).
“Youngkin rode that wave [Critical Race Theoery] and owned the issue. It was a key part of his messaging at campaign events and in ads,” said nonpartisan NPR analyst Domenico Montanaro. “Exit polls showed that parents who thought they should have a lot of say in schools broke for Youngkin by a wide margin.
Governor Ron DeSantis in December, following Virginia’s cue, unveiled the ‘Stop Wrong Against Our Kids and Employees Act,’ stylized as “Stop WOKE,” that would prevent state funding from going to public schools that enact a CRT learning plan, also preventing school staff from being subjected to what DeSantis called ‘anti-racist therapy.’
Naturally, Democrats are opposed to the bill and committed to ardently fighting against it during session.
“Many of us know that teachers in our local schools do their best to ensure our children thrive. They’ve been on the front lines of the pandemic showing that they’ll do all they can to keep our kids healthy and safe,” Representative Angie Nixon told The Capitolist immediately following the announcement. “Sadly, Ron DeSantis wants to convince us that somehow our schools, full of teachers that care and want the best for our kids, are actually factories programming students to be racist. Once again, our children are being used to play divisive political games that appeal to his far-right extremist base.”
DeSantis has repeatedly railed against CRT curricula, referring to it as racist and a leading contributor to America’s political tension.
“I think what you see now with the rise of this ‘woke’ ideology is an attempt to really delegitimize our history and delegitimize our institutions,” said DeSantis. “They want to tear the fabric of our society, and our culture, and a lot of things we’ve taken for granted, like the ability of parents to raise their children.”
DeSantis, who hasn’t announced an intention to run for the White House in 2024, but is heavily speculated to do so, could use CRT objection as a means of boosting his already-high national profile as a lead-up to a campaign.
DeSantis is also proposing the re-working of state standardized testing measures, wanting to abolish the FSA testing in favor of progress tracking, a change that has been well-supported by both parties.
School board meetings entered the political array following member voting in regards to COVID-19 handling, with many calling for increased accessibility and involvement by parents.
Senator Joe Gruters aims to address these desires with the proposal of Senate Bill 1300 (SB 1300) that would mandate that a minimum of 30 minutes at the start of every school board meeting be allocated for individual members of the public and representatives of groups to freely speak on any topic relating to the meeting and its proceedings. Each speaker would be given at least 3 minutes to touch on each agenda item.
SB 1300 would additionally grant speakers the right to individually criticize members of a school board given that they maintain orderly conduct and actively contribute to the ongoing discussion of the meeting.
Another proposal sponsored by Gruters – Senate Joint Resolution 244 – seeks to make Florida school board elections partisan again, a regulation that has not stood in place since 1998. In December the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee voted to approve the bill 5 to 4 along party lines. The bill will be voted on in session, with an anticipation that the measure will pass.
Gruters’ proposals are an attempt to bolster Florida’s ‘Parent’s Bill of Rights’ that Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law earlier this year, ruling that the state may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of their child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest and that such action is narrowly tailored and is not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.
Senate Proposal 1664 (SJR 1664), proposed by Senator Dennis Baxley, seeks to impose 8-year term limits for county school board members and would appear on November ballots as a referendum vote if passed in session as the act would necessitate a state constitutional amendment.
Similar to CRT legislation, Democrats are hesitant to jump on board with term limit proposals, which have been introduced to the Senate floor in recent years to no avail.
“I believe in term limits, but I also believe that this continued attack on our school boards is a game that I am not willing to get involved in,” said Senator Shevrin Jones. “I think the legislature has made it clear that they don’t want this and I think we should let dead things stay dead.”
Representative Bob Rommel seeks to put even more power into the hands of parents in schools with House Bill 1055 that could authorize school districts the ability to adopt policies that would require video cameras in public school classrooms accompanied by an easily-accessible platform where parents can watch the video feed.
The bill would also require teachers to wear a microphone and provide requirements that allow for the public viewing of footage. The bill mandates that if an interruption to the operation of the video camera occurs for any reason, an explanation must be submitted in writing to the school principal and the district school board to explain the reason for and duration of the interruption.
Democrats are also using school policies as an opportunity to go on the offensive, introducing a bill that would implement voter registration programs in Florida public high schools.
HB903 and SB1228, filed by Representative Anna V. Eskamani and Senator Annette Taddeo, respectively, would require all Florida public high schools to host bipartisan voter registration presentations, giving eligible students the option to register or pre-register to vote. These presentations, designed by the Division of Elections, would give students the resources to register to vote online.
Students could not be forced or persuaded to register to vote or register with a certain party, and teachers would not be involved in the presentation in any capacity.
“Our youths are the leaders and changemakers of tomorrow. By providing accessible voter registration in Florida’s public schools we are facilitating a space where these students can contribute to the democratic process of this great nation.”, said Taddeo in a press release. “Many people in our state don’t know that if you turn 18 years old by election time, you can pre-register at the age of 17 years old and these presentations can help inform on just that.”
If passed, Florida would become the 7th state or district to have such programs, joining Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and the District of Columbia.
As session kicks off tomorrow, school-related policies could prove to take center stage in discussions as both parties are locked in a rhetorical stalemate on the matter. In a Congress filled with former educators and school board members, individuals will have an opportunity to weigh in and offer perspective.