Florida Bills Could Hold Education Hostage to Ideology

Florida flagSome of the same parents who last summer waged a futile campaign against four books found in Collier County, Florida, school libraries are behind two new bills in the state legislature that would make it easier to challenge instructional materials that allegedly fail to provide a balanced viewpoint on hot-button issues such as evolution, climate change, and LGBT rights and relationships.

The two identical pieces of legislation, House Bill 899 and Senate Bill 1018, were introduced early last month at the behest of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance and Better Collier County Public Schools. Both groups, along with another called Parents ROCK, were previously involved in a public dispute over books they claimed were included on Collier County Public Schools’ recommended summer reading lists. In fact, the lists to which they objected were found on GoodReads.com and were compiled by users unconnected to Collier County Public Schools. The CCPS website did initially include a link to a GoodReads-curated page of Middle School Book Lists, but the parent groups apparently failed to understand that the school district had no control over the content found there. After receiving complaints, CCPS removed the GoodReads link and replaced it with a list compiled by the Florida Department of Education.

Nevertheless, some parents had already cross-checked lists from GoodReads against CCPS library collections and demanded the removal of four books from school libraries: Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia, and Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan. (One book called Beautiful Bastard, which they found on a GoodReads list and excerpted for provocative effect in at least one blog post, was never in any CCPS libraries or classrooms at all.) Despite much social media posturing and allegations that CCPS was defending “the use of highly explicit and pornographic materials,” however, the parent groups never availed themselves of the formal challenge procedure outlined in district policy.

In light of that history, observers are justifiably concerned about the can of worms that could be opened by the two bills introduced last month, which would amend a law that went into effect last year regarding adoption of instructional materials. As far as we can ascertain, school library books would not be affected as they are not included in the state’s legal definition of “instructional materials”; novels and other books assigned in class certainly would be, however.

Among other provisions, the amendments would allow any taxpayer — not just parents of enrolled students — to challenge instructional materials used in local school districts. Additionally, whereas the existing law says that school boards make the final decision on such challenges, the new bills give taxpayers the right to appeal the board’s decision to a district court. A spokesperson for the Florida Citizens’ Alliance told the Naples Daily News that he didn’t think many challenges would actually advance that far, but “the provision might encourage textbook companies to stick to the law’s guidelines in terms of providing historically accurate, noninflammatory and objective material.”

The problem, however, is that the lobbying groups’ definitions of what is historically accurate and noninflammatory appear somewhat biased. During the library book furor this summer FCA objected to the presence of books with LGBTQ themes, and the National Center for Science Education noted that the same group has also criticized history textbooks for covering evolution and climate change. Another amendment proposed in the two bills would allow school districts to adopt education standards “equivalent to or better than” state standards but fails to define how the relative quality of standards would be measured; NCSE points out that FCA’s website approvingly links to a curriculum that uses a creationist textbook for high school biology.

The House and Senate bills were filed last month in advance of the 2016 legislative session, which begins next week. We will be keeping a close eye on both through the two-month session, so watch for updates!

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2016 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!

Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.