Desantis and the Florida Republican Party Focus on Parental Rights in the Legislative Session.
In the 2023 legislative session of the Florida House and Senate, the Sunshine State is receiving national attention for the Republican Party’s controversial bills and amendments. Over the past five years of controversy during Governor Ron Desantis’ (R) term in the state of Florida, controversy has erupted regarding the politicization and restriction of the education system. The Democratic Party continues to show firm opposition to the GOP’s bills regarding book bans, sexual orientation, and gender expression. However, with a Republican supermajority in the Florida legislature, their opinions are rendered powerless on these party-line ideas.
House Bill 1557, and now statute 1001.42, was coined the “Don’t Say Gay” Bill during the 2022 legislative session. This statute is part of Desantis’ larger plan to grant parents greater rights in controlling their students’ education. The policy prohibited schools from allowing discourse on sexual orientation and sex education in kindergarten through third grade or whenever it was deemed not “age-appropriate.” This determination of whether or not conversations are “age-appropriate” is monitored by teachers, staff, the school board, and most notably: parents.
HB1557 was only the beginning of the Florida Republican Party’s initiative toward erasing the ability to freely express sexual and gender identity. A new bill, House Bill 1069, newly coined “Don’t Say They,” is currently making its way through the 2023 legislative committees. This bill manages to pack book bans, maintaining heteronormativity in the classroom and governmental control over the education system into 20 pages across multiple sections of the Florida Statutes.
House Bill 1069
HB1069 will be expanding the work of HB 1557 by extending the ban on sexual discourse to prekindergarten through Grade 8 rather than kindergarten through Grade 3. It will also be heavily regulating school library content and assigning the responsibility of materials to the district school boards and parents. In this legislation, parents will have the right to read passages from the materials their children are reading and have the option to “discontinue” specific materials by filing a complaint to the school board. If they are unhappy with the outcome and feel their voice is not being heard, they can petition for a lawyer from the Department of Education to provide a “recommended decision for resolution to the State Board of Education.” What this would entail is unclear, but what is clear is the Republican Party’s emphasis on executive control over school district policies.
Parents will also be given the right to know all changes in their student's mental, emotional, or physical health. Republicans claim this will promote “well-being and the school's ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.” Democrats are seeing this as an opportunity for schools to “out” children to their parents, i.e., alerting parents if a child reached out to a guidance counselor to speak about their sexuality or gender identity.
Additionally, HB1069 will also allow for staff and students to be dismissed from K-12 schools if they rebel against the notion that “sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person's sex.” Essentially, the bill will be banning the act of providing alternative pronouns inside the institution while solidifying the fact that “sex” is binary and should be seen through a lens of reproduction. This is reiterated in another bill on the floor, House Bill 1223.
Author of HB1069, Rep. Stan McClain (R-FL), has confirmed that he also intends for this bill to prohibit the conversation of menstrual cycles in the classroom before 6th grade. Rep. Ashley Gantt (D-FL) raised concerns about this provision stating, “My concern is [teachers] won't feel safe to have those conversations with these little girls.” Rep. McClain does not view this as an issue. Rep. Gantt, a former elementary teacher, has met several young students who have gotten their period under the age of 10.
It's undeniable that these policies continue to overlook the outdated and overly conservative clauses pre-existing in the Florida statutes regarding sexual health in Florida schools. HB 1069 aims to amend a current statute, 1003.42, which currently defines sex in an educational setting. They will be adding their new definitions but not removing some of the blatantly homophobic clauses that are pre-existing in the statute. For example, statute 1003.42 explicitly states a need to “teach abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage as the expected standard for all school-age students while teaching the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage.” Since this clause is mentioned verbatim in the proposed bill, there is undeniable proof that this way of thinking is not a shunned relic from the past infesting the Florida Statutes but one the Republican Party is aware of and content with keeping.
In general, this bill attempts to make a large sum of revisions to the current educational statutes beyond the aforementioned ideas and can be read in full: here. The policy has warranted immense backlash as 200 people protested from inside the Florida Capitol after HB 1069 passed the House on March 31. The protesters were largely made up of young, queer individuals who were advocating for the validity of their existence. James Williams, a staff member in Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-FL)’s office, has been largely helping the Democratic Party in the Tallahassee State House. “HB 1069 would censor any conversation of gay sex in public schools, as Florida law does not recognize sex between the same gender as ‘sex,’” he said. “This bill and this ideology is rooted in hate. It is not a matter of protecting children, as some GOP legislators claim. This will do nothing but harm LGBTQ+ youth and advance a radical right-wing political agenda set out by Governor DeSantis, who is preparing for his disastrous Presidential run.”
Proposed Rule Number 6A-10.081
Beyond just legislation, the Department of Education’s proposed rule number 6A-10.081 entitled “Principles of Professional Conduct for the Education Profession in Florida''. While HB1069 extends the Don’t Say Gay Bill to 8th grade, this new rule would impact the entire K-12 educational system by prohibiting instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity unless talked about in terms of reproductive health. Most forms of homosexual sex do not fall under the topic of reproduction, thus effectively erasing the conversation of homosexuality from the classroom.
HB 1223/ SB 1320
And, it appears that the Republican Party is not interested in separating church and state in their propositions–a clear violation of the first amendment. During a hearing on March 20th, the author of SB 1320, Senator Clay Yarborough (FL-R), stated, “Parents have the right and God-given responsibility to guide their children’s upbringing.” (SB1320 is the Senate equivalent of HB 1223).
Representative Rita Harris (FL-D) proposed an amendment to HB 1223, allowing staff members to refer to students by their preferred pronouns given a signed parental note. This amendment failed with a party-line vote.
“Although democrats offered many amendments to the bill, some of which would provide comprehensive sex education to public school students, change the definition of "sex" to expand beyond heterosexual relationships, and mandate that teachers use their students' pronouns, every single one was voted down along a party-line vote,” said Williams. “This goes to show that this bill is not about good policy, it sets out to advance a radical right-wing political agenda led by Gov. DeSantis.”
These legislative and departmental propositions are attempting to amend the way sexuality and self-expression are monitored within schools. While a large majority of the Republican Party shows immense support towards Desantis’ endeavors (besides Rep. Demi Busatta Cabrera (R-FL) and Rep. Will Robinson (R-FL), who crossed party lines in the House vote on HB1069), the Democratic legislators in Tallahassee continue to fight for their beliefs. Rep. Gantt (D-FL), who continues to be outspoken in her opposition to the bills proposed by the Republican legislature, described how “In this body, our duty to our constituents is to make sure that every single constituent is seen and heard in our legislation.” She further described how “ [HB1069 ] does nothing but tell certain parts of our community in Florida that they don’t exist.” The future of Florida’s schooling is currently up in the air, leaving the LGBTQ+ community concerned for their safety and acceptance while pursuing education.