It’s been a mere 18 months since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law, but further restrictions and curriculum changes have already flooded the state’s public school system as students, teachers, and caregivers reel from the impact. As the new school year begins, teachers and parents say self-censorship is running high, and they are concerned about how this will prepare the future leaders of their community.
DeSantis signed 18 bills into law in May, including House Bill 1069, which prevents teachers from asking students about their pronouns. The law states that “a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait” and “it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.” 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 only applied to kindergarten through third grade. But teachers say the law is intentionally vague and has far-reaching implications for students up to twelfth grade. While the state attorney general has decided that the “Don’t Say Gay” law doesn’t apply to school libraries, teachers and librarians are still implementing it.
Gretchen Robinson, a high school math teacher who has been teaching in Orange County for 23 years, has always given students the opportunity to be called by their preferred name. In the past, Robinson’s students have requested to be called by nicknames, middle names, and in the cases of trans students, names that align with their gender identities. Now, as a result of HB 1069, Robinson said she can no longer do that. Robinson said she has already unintentionally misgendered a student without knowing.
“That upsets me. I would prefer for the child to have been able to tell me, ‘This is what I prefer to be called,’” said Robinson. “It’s a very stupid, unnecessary, confusing, unnecessarily stress-inducing thing to be imposing on teachers, students, and parents.”
Robinson says she has thought about leaving the profession or, at least, the state under such intense circumstances. Other contributing factors include the teachers’ union. In May, DeSantis also passed a bill ending automatic dues payments for teachers in the union and requiring unions to recertify if the number of dues-paying members drops below 60% of those eligible to join. Robinson says she’s considered going to New York where the teachers’ union is stronger. But Robinson remains committed to uplifting and working with her students in Florida.
“I wouldn’t say I’m at the point of contemplating leaving, but it is probably the most frustrated I’ve been in my teaching career,” said Scott Nelson, an Advanced Placement Psychology teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools who has been teaching for more than 20 years. “We just came out of COVID [lockdowns], and I think an awareness was brought to the importance of mental health and support of all individuals. For that not to be the central focus of everybody, that’s where my concern is, that’s where my frustration is.”
Florida has also barred students from taking a new Advanced Placement African American studies course and changed its curriculum for learning Black history in grades K-12. The new curriculum teaches middle school students a falsified history that slavery benefited enslaved Africans. The new standards will be implemented beginning in the 2024-25 school year.
“As a history teacher, [the curriculum] is radically different from what I’ve taught in the past,” said Richard Ocampo, a Miami-Dade County Public Schools high school social studies teacher. “They’re pushing a certain political ideology and position instead of teaching straight facts, and that’s not what we signed up for with teaching.”
Ocampo, who has been teaching in the county for 15 years and currently teaches world history, says students should be taught facts and allowed to come to political opinions and beliefs on their own.
“It just seems that Republican and right-wing political ideologies have been kind of pushed down the throats of students and teachers,” said Ocampo, who is a member of the United Teachers of Dade.
Parents, teachers, and students are also concerned about the introduction and approval of PragerU materials. The conservative education platform, which touts itself as an alternative to progressive “indoctrination,” features animated videos with titles ranging from “Was the Civil War About Slavery?” to “The Inconvenient Truth About the Democratic Party.”
Ocampo said he does not know of any teacher at his school, which is predominantly Black, who will be using the PragerU materials in their classroom. He also adds that he has not received any complaints from parents or administration regarding his curriculum.
“I’ve faced harassment and retaliation dealing more with other workplace issues that are union related but not in terms of curriculum,” said Ocampo.
Brian, who requested to use a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation, has been teaching in Miami-Dade County Public Schools for the last eight years. He’s teaching high school psychics this year but is still concerned about how far reaching the impacts of the state’s educational censorship will be.
“The culture war stuff hasn’t really touched us too much because it’s not necessarily relevant [to psychics],” Brian said. “But I am still very concerned for a lot my colleagues and for a lot of the students because throughout the years I have had students, specifically dealing with the Don’t Say Gay act, who would be affected by that, and I am very concerned about how that’s going to affect the culture of the school and how the students feel when they’re in school.”
Schools censored identity-related content from their libraries after HB 1467 was signed last year, requiring an up-to-date database of all media content on campus that is available to students. The bill allows parents to submit complaints about specific books and requires school administration to respond. The bill seeks to eliminate race-based and sexually explicit material from the classrooms. According to the censorship advocacy group PEN America, hundreds books have been banned across Florida since July 2021, with at least 350 banned since HB 1467 went into effect, including “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas, and “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn.
The Department of Education also almost banned Advanced Placement Psychology. After a back-and-forth with the College Board, in which the nonprofit refused to edit out the topic of gender and sex, Manny Díaz Jr., the state education commissioner, sent a letter to superintendents saying the course can be taught consistent with state law. The letter was not sent until Aug. 4, days before many districts returned to the classroom. For some school districts, it wasn’t enough time to change their curriculum for the year. At Orange County Public Schools, which started its school year on Aug. 10, the administration pivoted to offer a Cambridge AICE Psychology course or IB Psychology course for students already in the program as an alternative. Other districts like Hillsborough County initially removed the course but have since reinstated it.
Teachers say they want trust to be returned to the educators in charge of the curriculum in the classroom.
“I’ve always been honest with my students; I teach psychology from a science-based focus, and I can’t change science based on politics,” said Nelson. “I absolutely will have to follow the law—there’s no question about that, and I guess the biggest frustration is right now the laws were written so ambiguously that a lawyer somewhere is probably crying.”