New Instructional Materials bill includes “controversial issues” requirement

A bill filed Friday in the Florida Legislature, House Bill 855, proposes making a slew of changes to instructional materials laws, tackling issues like pornography and sex education. Science is not directly mentioned in the bill, but there are two sections that can definitely impact science materials.

One proposal is small yet significant. Below is a section of current law that the bill would change. Parts underlined are additions to law the bill proposes, and strike-throughs are deletions.

463 To use the selection criteria listed in s. 1006.34(2)(b) and
464 recommend for adoption only those instructional materials
465 aligned with or exceed the Next Generation Sunshine State
466 Standards provided for in s. 1003.41. Instructional materials
467 recommended by each reviewer shall comply with all quality and
468 content criteria established in state law, including an
469 assurance that such materials are researched-based and proven to
470 be effective in supporting student learning; are be, to the
471 satisfaction of each reviewer, accurate and factual; provide,
472 objective, balanced, and noninflammatory viewpoints on
473 controversial issues; are, current, free of pornography and
474 material prohibited under s. 847.012; are of acceptable quality;
475 are in full compliance with s. 847.012, s. 1003.42, and all
476 other state laws relating to instructional materials;, and are
477 suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the
478 material presented.

My first concern is in line 465: the addition of “or exceed.” I believe this is meant to dovetail with another bill we’re watching in the senate (Senate Bill 330) that proposes allowing school districts to choose their own sets of academic standards as long as they are equal to or more rigorous than the state’s academic standards. In other words, the Florida Citizens Alliance, who wrote the senate bill and this bill, are trying to influence several parts of Florida education law and weave them all together into their own vision of what education should look like. The addition of “or exceed” can be seen in several places throughout this bill.

The next concern is lines 472 to 473: namely the “controversial issues” part. The Alliance tried several times to get equal time in science textbooks for their creationist and anti-global warming views. When they ultimately failed, they complained that school boards were not adhering to Florida state statute 1006.31, which says, “Instructional materials recommended by each reviewer shall be, to the satisfaction of each reviewer, accurate, objective, balanced, noninflammatory, current, free of pornography …” So, here they are trying to include that language in another part of state law and marry it to the phrase “controversial issues.” This bill also adds a reference to 1006.31 in line 532.

An interesting fact to note is that the bill sponsor is Rep. Walter Byran “Mike” Hill from Pensacola. I recognize him from an interview he did with Bill Nye in the National Geographic Explorer show Bill Nye: Global Meltdown. I show that video to my high school environmental science class every year. Rep. Hill frustrated the heck out of Bill Nye because Hill steadfastly refused to acknowledge that global warming is a very real threat being caused by humans. I recommend you see for yourself. Rep. Hill’s interview starts around 8:30 in this version. No wonder Rep. Hill would agree to help the Alliance with this bill.

The other main concern I have with this bill is the changes being made to the hearings that must be held whenever a citizen complains about instructional materials. If you’re not familiar with the relatively new law about hearing officers, read our issues page about it.

A new law passed by our state legislature and signed by our governor in 2017 now allows any citizen, not just a parent, to protest to local school boards about instructional materials and those protests could then force the school board to appoint a hearing officer to collect evidence about the complaints. This has led to several challenges already, some of them blatantly targeting evolution and other science topics.

First, here is one drastic change:

230 3.a. If the district school board finds that an
231 instructional material does not meet the criteria under sub
232 subparagraph 2.a.a. or that any other material contains
233 prohibited content under sub-subparagraph 2.b.b., the school
234 district shall proactively remove discontinue use of the
235 material regardless of whether a parent or resident has objected
236 to the material for any grade level or age group for which such
237 use is inappropriate or unsuitable.

I believe this will allow for any school board member who doesn’t like certain instructional materials, such as textbooks with evolution of global warming, to claim that the materials were not properly vetted and toss them without having to wait for a citizen to file a complaint.

And here’s the real kicker:

248 d. After exhausting all local policy remedies and
249 appealing to the State Board of Education, a parent or resident
250 may sue in circuit court for an injunction to remove such
251 materials and may recover reasonable attorney fees and costs.

Don’t like the school board’s decision? Sue them.

The Alliance raged about the perceived unfairness of the hearings they engaged in last year when they tried to challenge evolution and global warming in the science textbooks that were up for adoption by the school districts. They vehemently disagreed with the selection of the hearing officer and the way the proceedings were conducted. You can see for yourself how they reacted to the hearings in Collier County in my post about that experience.

So, they want to change key elements of the process (underlines are additions; strike-throughs are deletions):

252 4.3. Each district school board must establish a process
253 by which the parent of a public school student or a resident of
254 the county may contest the district school board’s adoption of a
255 specific instructional material. The parent or resident must
256 file a petition, on a form provided by the school board, within
257 30 calendar days after the adoption of the material by the
258 school board. The school board must make the form easy to use,
259 prominently advertise the school board’s policy and the form
260 available to the public, and publish the form on the school
261 district’s website. The form must be signed by the parent or
262 resident, include the required contact information, and state
263 the objection to the instructional material based on the
264 criteria of s. 1006.31(2) or s. 1006.40(3)(d). A hearing officer
265 must give priority to a parent’s or resident’s objections based
266 on failure of a material to comply with the criteria of s.
267 1006.31(2) or s. 1006.40(3)(d) in his or her written findings.
268 Within 30 days after the 30-day period has expired, the school
269 board must, for all petitions timely received, commission
270 conduct at least one open public hearing by an independent
271 before an unbiased and qualified hearing officer. A district
272 school board may not appoint its own hearing officer and the
273 hearing officer may not be an employee or agent of the school
274 district. At least 7 days before the hearing, a school board
275 must provide each petitioner with a written notification of the
276 date and time of the hearing and publish on its website for the
277 public all instructional materials included in a petition. A
278 school board’s failure to provide petitioners with the required
279 written notice or publish such instructional materials on its
280 website for the public shall result in the hearing being
281 rescheduled to satisfy these requirements. The hearing is not
282 subject to the provisions of chapter 120.; however, The hearing
283 must provide sufficient procedural protections to allow each
284 petitioner an adequate and fair opportunity to be heard and
285 present evidence to the hearing officer on all petitions timely
286 received. The hearing officer shall provide written findings on
287 each objection with his or her recommendations to the school
288 board. Failure of the hearing officer to provide written
289 findings on each objection voids the adoption process. Members
290 of the district school board, the district school
291 superintendent, and any attorney for the school district may
292 attend a hearing as part of the audience, but may not
293 participate in the hearing. An attorney for the school district
294 may not have been involved in designing or establishing the
295 rules of operation for the hearing.
297 The rationale for the school board’s decision for each contested
298 instructional material must be documented and available to the
299 public. Decisions regarding such instructional materials by the
300 school board may be appealed by the petitioner to the State
301 Board of Education. A petitioner may appeal the decision of the
302 state board to a circuit court and may seek damages or
303 injunctive relief, or both. The circuit court has original and
304 exclusive jurisdiction of all proceedings brought under this
305 section. If any proceeding brought under this section is deemed
306 to be frivolous by the court, the petitioner may recover
307 reasonable attorney fees and costs after convening a hearing is
308 final and not subject to further petition or review.

Wow. Just wow. That is breathtaking. The Alliance didn’t like who the school boards selected as hearing officers, so lines 271-271 take care of that. The Alliance didn’t like that some hearing officers didn’t submit written recommendations, so lines 285-289 take care of that. The Alliance didn’t like how the school district lawyer interpreted the law governing hearings, so lines 289-295 take care of that. And the Alliance didn’t like the school boards’ decisions, so lines 301-308 take care of that.

And that’s how special interest groups in Florida make laws.

I haven’t discussed in this post the sections on sex education and pornography because they’re not really relevant to our focus on science education. But they’re just as insane as what I’ve covered here.

This bill is a clear and present danger to all of Florida education. It essentially gives special interest groups like the Alliance immense power to bully school boards into submission.

We need your help to fight this bill. There is a chance that it won’t ever make it out of the starting gate, which would be wonderful and wise. But the Alliance has been growing in influence. Remember, Alliance members were on the new governor’s education transition team. We can’t just assume that bad bills like this one will be sidelined. We have to remain vigilant and active.

About Brandon Haught

Communications Director for Florida Citizens for Science.
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