LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Florida's move to expand its prohibition on teaching sexual orientation or gender identity in the classroom comes as Republican lawmakers in other states are pursuing their own versions of what critics have dubbed the “Don't Say Gay” law.
The prohibition signed last year by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to announce a presidential run soon, is being copied by GOP lawmakers pushing for similar limits on what can be taught in public schools.
DeSantis and other supporters of the prohibitions portray them as ways to protect children from being taught about inappropriate material. But critics say they are marginalizing LGBTQ people and creating a chilling effect on what teachers and students can discuss.
The Florida state Board of Education is set to vote next month on an effort by DeSantis' administration to ban lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity from grades 4 to 12, unless required by existing state standards or as part of reproductive health instruction that students can choose not to take.
The initial law that DeSantis championed last spring bans those lessons in kindergarten through the third grade, or instruction that could be deemed inappropriate for students.
The governor’s education department commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said the DeSantis’ administration’s move to extend the ban to the 12th grade is intended to clarify confusion around what is deemed age appropriate in later grades and to reinforce that teachers adhere to existing state standards that guide curriculums.
“This rule basically says that we’re sticking to the standards, and when you’re talking about K through 12 instruction, all the way to 12th grade, these standards don’t incorporate gender ideology or any of these theories in math, social studies, reading or anything else,” Diaz said at a news conference Thursday.
Two other states — Alabama and Arkansas — have enacted laws similar to Florida’s since last year.
Alabama’s law, signed last year by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, prohibits classroom instruction in public schools on gender identity or sexual orientation from kindergarten through 5th grade “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
Arkansas’ prohibition was adopted as part of a 145-page education overhaul signed this month by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders that also included a new school voucher program and an increase in teacher minimum pay. The law prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation before 5th grade.
At least 30 proposals similar to Florida’s law have been filed in 16 states, and they vary by ages. They make up more than a quarter of the bills filed this year to restrict what can be taught in the classroom, said Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.
“They have become the second most common proposed speech restriction in state legislatures after anti-critical race theory bills,” Young said.
The proposals also come as statehouses have seen a surge of bills this year targeting the transgender community, including proposals to ban gender-affirming medical care for trans youth.
DeSantis' administration is pushing to expand the state's ban even as GOP lawmakers are advancing a proposal to extend it to the 8th grade.
A Missouri bill to ban K-12 public school staff from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation is pending before a House committee.
The Florida law reads as follows: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”
When he signed the bill last year, DeSantis said the measure would “make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”
Critics have argued that the law’s language is vague and doesn’t make clear exactly what constitutes “instruction” or “age appropriate” lessons.
“There's no guidance in any of this, none whatsoever, which has made it the wild, wild west,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association.
When the law was first implemented, there were concerns that it would stifle classroom discussions and create an environment where LGTBQ people would feel ostracized. Still, most educators did not expect a major change in lesson plans, given that one of the key criticisms of the law was that teachers do not cover such subjects in early grades.
Opponents of the Florida law and similar proposals say the restrictions are creating a chilling effect on teachers.
“Teachers are wondering, can I put up a rainbow sticker? Can I talk about this LGBTQ+ historical figure? Can I put up a picture of my wife if I'm a woman?” Courtnay Avant, legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign, said. “That is a big concern, where does the censorship begin and end with these bills?”
Florida's law sparked a feud between the state and Disney, one of the state's largest employers and political donors. Disney publicly opposed the law and said it was pausing political donations in the state.
In what was widely seen as retaliation, the Republican-dominated Legislature approved a measure backed by DeSantis to dissolve a self-governing district controlled by Walt Disney World over its properties in Florida. Lawmakers eventually gave DeSantis control of the board.
The prohibition has also faced court challenges, though one federal lawsuit was tossed by a judge last month. Another lawsuit filed by LGBTQ students, parents and their families — as well as several civil rights groups — remains pending in federal court.
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