Book-Banning bill update 3/30

Another week has slipped by in Florida’s annual legislative session and so far the issues we here at Florida Citizens for Science are most concerned about are stalled or defanged.

What was the most dangerous bill on our radar, HB 855 — which had been dubbed the book-banning bill — passed through its first committee hearing Tuesday and come out the other side looking much different.

For background information on this bill (and its companion in the senate SB 1454), please read our first alert about it: New Instructional Materials bill includes “controversial issues” requirement. That post breaks down many of the key issues of the bill and reveals a little background about the bill sponsor, Rep. Walter Byran “Mike” Hill from Pensacola. Then read the update post: Getting ready for another wild ride in Tallahassee. That post has a brief bullet point list of the bill’s many problems. And finally, read the post alerting everyone about the first committee hearing: “Book banning” bill written by creationists/climate change deniers to get first hearing.

Before the committee hearing even began, bill sponsor Rep. Hill replaced it with what’s called a “committee substitute,” which in this case turned out to be a complete revision of the bill. A Tampa Bay Times article gives a brief rundown of the changes: Florida School book removal bill overhauled before first committee stop

The PreK-12 Quality committee has taken the 24-page HB 855 and trimmed it back to six pages before its scheduled hearing Tuesday afternoon. The stripped down version takes out some of the most contentious language that had anti-censorship advocates most alarmed.

The original bill version obsessed over pornography and had a long list of changes to the way a hearing about instructional materials complaints was to be planned and conducted. Poof — all gone in this new version. The new committee substitute focuses on three new changes to law. First there is this (bolded text is the new stuff proposed by this bill):

A school principal must communicate to parents about the content of reproductive health instructional materials at least 10 days before students view such materials.

Then there is this (bolded text is the new stuff proposed by this bill) :

Each district school board shall maintain on its website a current list of instructional materials, by grade level, purchased by the district. Such list must contain, at a minimum, the title, author, and ISBN number, if available, for all instructional materials.

Both of those changes seem harmless and a far cry from the original bill’s intent. Then there is the third change (bolded text is the new stuff proposed by this bill) :

(c) Other instructional materials.—Provide such other teaching accessories and aids as are needed for the school district’s educational program, including supplemental instructional materials. Each school district shall create a policy for the use of supplemental instructional materials in the classroom in compliance with s. 1006.31(2) and any other state laws relating to instructional materials.

Section 3. The Commissioner of Education shall review the process school districts use to evaluate materials that are not included on the state-adopted list as required in s. 1006.283, Florida Statutes. The commissioner shall provide a report to the Governor, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives by December 31, 2020. The report shall include statistics regarding how many materials have been removed by school districts as a result of the review process in s. 1006.283, Florida Statutes, and identify instructional materials with confirmed, factual errors and any corrective measures taken pursuant to s. 1006.35, Florida Statutes. The report shall include recommendations on ways the public can review materials that are not on the state-adopted list, including library materials, books included on summer reading lists, and books available for purchase at book fairs.

This is a tougher part of the law to decipher. First, this bill appears to be concerned with things other than textbooks used in the classroom. In my classroom I use all sorts of things not related to the textbook like worksheets, news stories, videos, labs, etc. On a regular basis I find materials days or even hours before I use them. I try to keep my environmental science lessons current and real-world as possible. President Trump is going to visit Lake Okeechobee in a couple of days? I jump into action to prepare something about it for my class. The referenced statute 1006.31(2) is the one that the writers of the original bill, the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, have been trying to reinterpret and use a sledgehammer to promote their own world views in schools. It says, in part:

Instructional materials recommended by each reviewer shall be, to the satisfaction of each reviewer, accurate, objective, balanced, noninflammatory, current, free of pornography

Do my many supplemental materials fit the Alliances’ interpretation of this statute? They definitely match the state science standards and my district’s curriculum map. Are my materials, if they aren’t some type of book, covered by this proposed bill?

The other mysterious part of this bill is the report that would be required about materials being removed by school districts and what kind of “confirmed, factual errors” they have. Of course, I stay focused on challenges to science materials, which have been thankfully unsuccessful so far. But I’m not aware of successful challenges to any other academic materials, either. What’s the purpose of this report?

I encourage you to watch the video of this PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee meeting. Committee member Rep. Anna Eskamani. asked bill sponsor Rep. Hill a few interesting questions. Start at three minutes.

Rep. Eskamani: Does your bill also only apply to public schools or to any type of learning environment, including charter and private?

Rep. Hill: This is just for public schools at this time.

Rep. Eskamani: Reasoning for that?

Rep. Hill: Because the public schools are government run schools. Those are ones we have most control over. The private schools we don’t have as much control over them. We leave those decisions up to the parents to decide the type of material that’s going to be taught there.

Rep. Eskamani: Understood, Rep. Hill. How about for any schools that receive public dollars? Would you consider them to also perhaps follow the same instructional material rules in this bill?

Rep. Hill: Are you referring to like charter schools?

Rep. Eskamani: Any institution that receives a state scholarship program, yes.

Rep. Hill: Yes, I believe that this bill would cover that also.

Other committee members brought up concerns about the over regulation of supplemental materials, which is something Rep. Hill addressed in his closing remarks at 15:18

I apologize if I said that this applies to private schools. It does not. It applies to public schools and to charter schools but not to private schools. So, if I gave you that impression I wanted to clarify that.

And then there was the comment about the supplemental materials. My wife was a preschool teacher for a number of years so I understand what you mean — if they are trying to get things and make their class more lively and so forth. No one is going to object to that. However, if we find that a teacher goes out, brings in some material that a parent finds objectionable, then that parent — the child could take it home and the parent could say ‘what is this?’ This would say now that those supplemental materials that have been introduced will be held accountable. It is not to try and prevent them from doing things which is going to more robust, educational, entertaining. It’s to make sure that the parents have a way of expressing their objection if that supplemental material is against, um, that they find objection to.

You heard him, ladies and gentlemen. If you see any creationist or climate-change-denying materials, you can object. Of course, the actual intent behind the bill is just the opposite (since it comes from the creationist, climate change denying group Florida Citizens’s Alliance). The intent is to snuff out evolution and climate change materials, like they attempted several times in the past (see our issues page: Challenges to evolution & climate change in textbooks for lots of examples.)

The bill passed this committee on a 11-2 vote. According to the bill’s web page, there is one more stop in the full Education Committee, but a hearing for this bill has not been scheduled there yet. However, when committee assignments were first done for this bill, it was also supposed to go to the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee. I’m confused as to why that subcommittee assignment disappeared off the list. Also of note is that the companion bill in the senate, SB 1454, appears to be stalled. No committee hearings have been scheduled.

And a final note on this bill: the Alliance isn’t happy with it. They have a few amendments written and ready to go that would restore many of the contentious issues that were in the original bill version. We’ll see if those amendments get filed.

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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