Florida’s edicts on classrooms are wearing thin with some school board members

Tampa Bay Times | Jeffrey S. Solochek | March 3, 2023

State officials are “forgetting there’s a constitutional authority given to school boards,” said longtime Pinellas board member Carol Cook.

The first directive came last week.

State officials told school districts to submit lists of books and programs that deal with sex education, social-emotional learning and other topics that Gov. Ron DeSantis wants banned or restricted.

Next, on the day the lists were due, state education commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. sent a follow-up memo to all superintendents and school boards. It said the Miami-Dade County school district was using “divisive and discriminatory content branded as social-emotional learning,” and he wanted everyone to be clear.

Social-emotional learning has “no place in Florida’s classrooms,” Diaz wrote. “Schools should immediately cease using any materials that conflict with Florida law.”

The Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment about the survey and the memo, which were greeted with dismay by some school board members.

Carol Cook, who has served on the Pinellas County School Board since 2000, said the level of micromanagement coming from the state is unprecedented.

Carol Cook [ Pinellas County Schools ]

“They have always in the past given us what the standards are, given us some direction,” Cook said. “But not to this extent.”

She said lawmakers and state officials are overstepping their roles, forgetting “there’s a constitutional authority given to school boards” to oversee education in their local districts. In many cases, Cook added, districts are not getting clear instruction from the state on matters such as what materials adhere to law.

Disputes have arisen all across the state, for example, over the meaning of “pornography” and whether it is present in certain books. That’s even after the department sent out a definition.

The department also has targeted culturally relevant teaching in addition to social-emotional learning. Both concepts offer approaches aimed at helping students feel more comfortable, accepted and productive at school.

“It’s creating a lot of turmoil,” Cook said of the state’s demands.

Jessica Vaughn [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn, whom DeSantis recently targeted for defeat in the 2024 election, suggestedthe survey and letter were timed to send a message as the legislative session nears.

“They absolutely want to have the authority to control about everything in our schools — what’s being taught, what the narrative is — and make sure school boards aren’t an obstacle to that,” she said.

Along with that, Vaughn said, comes the insinuation that boards need to fall in line, or there will be a price to pay. She noted that some board members have faced the threat of fines, removal from office and other penalties for actions such as opposing the DeSantis administration’s rule on masks during the pandemic.

“It’s the antithesis of small government,” Vaughn said, referring to the governing philosophy Republicans have touted in the past.

“We know our communities best,” she said“We should have some autonomy to formulate the education to meet the needs of our community.”

Even if the districts want to meet state demands, they’re not always given much time, said Eileen Long, a Pinellas County board member also targeted by DeSantis. Guidance came from the department on library book reviews only weeks ago, she noted, and educators are still trying to figure out what meets the mark.

Eileen Long [Pinellas County Schools]

“These standards are new and they’re tweaking them all the time,” Long said. “To purchase a book today might not even be appropriate in six months.”

She said she got the sense from the latest letters that it upsets the governor and the Department of Education if they cannot have total control.

“I don’t like this undertone that they can censor books,” she said, adding that she filed papers to seek reelection after DeSantis declared she should go. “I feel real good about it. We’re going to start the campaign and whatever happens, happens.”

Vaughn suggested that most Floridians have bigger issues at stake, such as having high quality teachers in their children’s classrooms and keeping schools safe from guns and drugs.

“They’re worried about things it doesn’t look like our state leadership is addressing,” she said.

Cook said it’s incumbent upon school board and district leaders to convey their concerns about how the schools and students are being affected by the top-down efforts.

“We need to go to Tallahassee and have conversations,” Cook said. “What’s going to work and what’s not? Who knows?”

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