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Florida Parents Struggle With State’s Ongoing Public Education Censorship

In the new school year, some are organizing to make sure conservative materials like PragerU stay out of the classroom.

The entrance to the children's room at a Miami-Dade Public Library is shown in Miami, Florida.

Parents across Florida are figuring out how to cope with the state’s ongoing public education censorship. Almost a month into the new school year, parents say they are organizing to combat the governor-mandated censorship while communicating with their children’s teachers to make sure conservative materials like PragerU stay out of the classroom.

At the Miami-Dade district school board meeting on Sept. 6, the South Florida parent group Moms for Libros advocated for naming the month of October “LGBTQ History Month.” This is the third year that school board member Lucia Baez-Geller has sponsored the initiative. In 2022, Baez-Geller sponsored a similar initiative but was voted down after vocal conservative opposition said the initiative provided a curriculum that violated the law. In 2021, the initiative passed almost unanimously.

This year, the initiative does not include any prescribed curriculum. A week before the school board meeting, the conservative group Moms for Liberty began circulating a flyer protesting the Moms for Libros designation for “explicitly implying sexual ideology in schools which is wrong & directly violates HB-07 Parental Rights in Education Bill.” The board voted against the initiative after over seven hours of public comment and deliberation.

Over the past year, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education have signed over 18 education-related bills into law, including HB 1069, which calls for a review of library and classroom materials available to students in public schools and the process for parents. The law also expands the original “Don’t Say Gay” bill’s prohibition on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity to include pre-K and fourth through eighth grades. The original law (HB 1557) only applied to kindergarten through third grade classrooms. While the state’s attorney general has decided that the “Don’t Say Gay” law doesn’t apply to school libraries, teachers and librarians are still implementing it.

“I’m horrified with what’s going on right now with the education department and how they’re trying to whitewash and water down and indoctrinate our kids,” said Moms for Libros co-founder Lissette Fernandez.

Fernandez, a stay-at-home mom of two public school students, co-founded Moms for Libros with Vanessa Brito, vice president of the Kendall Democrats. Fernandez was initially alarmed by the restriction of Amanda Gorman’s book “The Hill We Climb” from a Miami-Dade County public elementary school library in May of this year. She reached out to Brito to raise awareness in the community and try to reach the pockets of Miami-Dade parents who may not have access to accurate information regarding the state’s censorship in their students’ classrooms. This summer, the duo encouraged parents to apply for slots on committees to review social studies textbooks. The Moms for Libros Instagram page also includes links to speaker trainings, school board meeting resources, and forms for parents to request reconsideration of instructional materials.

Betty Williams, a former public school teacher and mother of a fifth-grade student in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, said one of her biggest concerns is the quality of her daughter’s education and the possibility of a school indoctrinating her into believing something false.

“My daughter loves to follow rules, and she takes anything you tell her as the law,” said Williams. “I am scared that … I’m going to have to work backwards to teach her.”

Williams says they are “free thinkers” in her household and have a LGBTQIA+ member in the family.

“I’m scared of her getting in trouble,” Williams said. “I’m concerned that now I have to tell her she could talk about this at home but not at school.”

After the open house at her daughter’s school, Williams says her daughter mentioned that she saw a teacher wearing a Pride pin. Williams had to explain to her that there are some laws that prohibit conversations about pride, and even certain books.

“She felt so mad,” Williams said.

Williams said she has thought about leaving Florida. She also wants the state to return autonomy to the teachers in the classrooms and give them more flexibility while noting that you can never predict a teacher’s political position. She calls for an objective curriculum framework.

“Teachers should be given the freedom to teach what they want,” Williams said. “Just eliminate all the censorship.”

Other parents worry the curriculum will set children up at a disadvantage when going to college.

“Florida is trying to take education backward and not give a full and diverse education,” Fernandez said.

A Miami-Dade parent who requested to remain anonymous said she checked with her first-grade daughter’s teacher to make sure the school wasn’t teaching PragerU materials in the classroom. According to her, the school’s administration was unaware of the materials available to teachers.

“Everything that they’re pushing is completely what our family is against,” she said.

The parent also says she made a conscious decision to enroll her two school-aged children in the public school system because she wanted them to be exposed to a diverse community of peers. Now, she is weighing whether to leave the state due to school censorship. “We need to be the state that stands on the forefront of resisting all the above, from ‘Don’t Say Gay’ to the PragerU curriculum, to the banning of books,” she said.

At the statewide level, Orange County Public School parent Stephana Ferrell said she saw the first warning signs of this level of censorship in 2021. The organizer, who co-founded the Florida Freedom to Read Project, said book-banning efforts arrived in Orange County with the removal of Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer.” The district also challenged Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy,” Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime,” and shadow-banned George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” meaning that, though records showed the book was in stock, students requesting the book would be told it was unavailable for checkout.

In response, activists with the Florida Freedom to Read Project have been speaking at board meetings in defense of having diverse bookshelves, filing FOIA requests to retain information on the censoring process, and organizing parent groups across the state.

“[We] decided we weren’t going to tolerate this ignorant thinking in our districts,” Ferrell said. “We were going to push back. We were going to fight for the rights of students to have access to these books.”

Ferrell says the data she has collected proves that only a minority of parents are actually interested in censoring their children’s access to certain books. According to opt-out data from 35 counties in the state, only five districts had parental opt-out requests. Of those five, the number of requests was, at most, 1.54% of the county’s total population. Some districts, like Clay County, have even forced parents to fill out a form to allow their children to have access to the library.

“These districts that are implementing restrictions … are doing so to appease a very small segment of the population,” Ferrell said. “Our districts are erring on the side of caution, not education, to appease the most conservative voices in the community.”

Some counties, like Escambia County, have closed their classroom libraries and are removing books that appear on the Moms for Liberty website for review. Ferrell’s child’s classroom library in Orange County is also closed.

“I don’t hold it against them; they could lose their jobs over having a book in their classroom library,” Ferrell said. “We should not make that assumption that parents want this dystopian level of control over their children, especially adolescents, especially young adults.”

A provision in HB 1069 says that parents have the right to publicly read passages from any book as part of their objection to that book. If the school board denies a parent from reading passages because of sexual content, the district is required to discontinue the use of the material. Conservative parents are now attending school board meetings and reading passages from books they want banned aloud to break decorum.

On Aug. 28, Moms for Liberty parents performed this exact action at the Indian River School Board meeting, resulting in board members asking them to stop, saying it was inappropriate for students. The next morning, 20 books were banned from the district.

Ferrell says they will likely see this strategy at play more often and that more parents need to attend school board meetings to object to book banning.

“Public schools are the heart of our communities,” Ferrell said. “Teaching inclusion and acceptance and the importance of entertaining civil debate and being able to think critically about the context in which an argument or a topic is being presented to us — all of these things are so very important to the community as a whole.”

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