PHOTO COURTESY NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA Senate Education Chairman Joe Gruters is sponsoring a bill that would increase scrutiny of school library books and instructional materials.

Overriding objections from Democrats who warned of “the slippery slope of censorship,” Senate Republicans on Tuesday took a first step toward ramping up scrutiny of the way public-school library books and instructional materials are chosen.

The proposal (SB 1300), sponsored by Senate Education Chairman Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, was approved by the Republican-controlled Education Committee in a 6-3 vote along party lines. The bill would change the review process for books and other learning materials, adding requirements and making it more open to the public.

For instance, school boards would be required to publish on the website of each school the procedures for developing media-center collections.

Elementary schools would be required to publish on their websites “in a searchable format” all books and materials that are kept in the schools’ media centers or that are part of class reading lists.

“I think that’s where most of the complaints we’re receiving are from,” Gruters said of the part of the bill specific to elementary schools.

The legislation aims to give the public increased input on how library and classroom books are chosen by spelling out that all instructional materials, with the exception of teacher editions, are subject to “public inspection” — including the right to copy or photograph materials.

Committees that advise school boards on the “ranking, eliminating or selecting” of books and other materials would be required to include parents and community members

School boards also would have to adopt procedures that provide for the “regular removal or discontinuance” of library books based on criteria including “alignment to state academic standards” and out-of-date content.

“The purpose of the bill is to create transparency in the process. It’s not to censor anything. It’s about giving people the opportunity to understand exactly what is being offered to their students, in terms of instructional materials,” Gruters said.

But Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, cautioned against opening the door to what she described as censorship.

“This is the slippery slope of censorship. We are starting down the path of censorship. It’s an authoritarian action,” Berman said.

Several people who testified in favor of the bill advocated for the removal of books that they said contained sexually explicit content or material that was not age-appropriate.

But Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said public schools should be places where children learn about the world around them.

“If you want them insulated so much that they shouldn’t learn about the outside world, then you should home-school them. Or you can send them to a religious private school with voucher money,” Polsky said, directing her comment at people who spoke in favor of the measure.

School boards and parental involvement in education have become hot-button political issues for Republicans in Florida and other states. The issue, for example, played a key role in Republican Glenn Youngkin’s recent election as governor of Virginia.

The Senate bill resembles a House measure (HB 1467) that needs to clear one more committee before it could be considered by the full House.

The House bill, however, would nix salaries for school board members. The Senate bill would make school board members’ pay equal to the salaries of state lawmakers.

Lawmakers make $29,697 per year. School board salaries range this year from $26,965 in Liberty County to $47,189 in Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Palm Beach counties, according to a House staff analysis.

“There’s 18 counties (that) have salaries below where we are today,” Gruters said of lawmakers’ pay, adding that others pay school board members more than legislators.

“The House has zero (pay for school board members) as their starting point. I believe that people should be compensated and that we’ll continue on this discussion. And I think that certainly what we get paid is probably fair enough for what school board members should be paid,” Gruters said.

Berman criticized the provision of the bill, saying “it’s politically motivated against” school board members. Polsky, who pointed out that board members in her home county of Palm Beach would take a pay cut under the plan, pressed Gruters on why the bill would get in the way of local decisions.

“While I appreciate that it’s better than zero, I don’t understand the reasoning for that either,” Polsky said. “So, again, why are we getting involved in a school district’s decision on what to pay their school board?”

“I will say that the formula is in fact in statute. So we do have the authority to do it,” Gruters responded.

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