PHOTO COURTESY NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, is a leading opponent of a bill that would place restrictions on teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation.

The Republican-dominated Florida House is on the brink of passing two of the most controversial education proposals of the 2022 legislative session, drawing ire from Democrats who say the bills would stifle teachers and further stigmatize LGBTQ students.

The proposals would limit the way race, sexual orientation and gender identity are discussed in schools. The House is poised to pass the measures Thursday, after GOP members on Tuesday rejected dozens of proposed changes filed by Democrats.

A bill (HB 1557) that has riled LGBTQ-advocacy groups would prohibit school instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade. In older grades, it would prohibit instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate” based on state academic standards.

Critics of the measure have labeled it the “don’t say gay” bill, and the issue has garnered national headlines.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who is gay, slammed the proposal during a news conference Tuesday before the House floor session.

“Folks who are a healthy and normal part of every society and every single school, (the bill) sends a dangerous message that conversations about us in the classroom, in and of themselves, are dangerous,” Smith said.

The measure also would bar school districts from adopting procedures that would prohibit school employees from informing parents about their children’s “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being” or changes to the student’s health-related services.

School policies would be prohibited from encouraging or having “the effect of encouraging a student to withhold from a parent such information.” School employees similarly would be prohibited from discouraging parents’ involvement in decisions related to the well-being of students.

The measure would make an exception for situations where “a reasonably prudent person would believe” that disclosing such information would result in abuse, neglect or abandonment of students.

Bill sponsor Joe Harding, R-Williston, characterized the bill as being geared toward keeping parents informed about “critical decisions” involving their children at school.

“We believe that the best environment for a student is an environment where the parent is empowered and involved and working concurrently with the school district,” Harding said.

Parents would be able to sue school districts for violations of the bill. The measure also was tweaked Tuesday to allow for an alternative process to resolve such disputes, which would involve administrative hearings before special magistrates. The special magistrates would be appointed by the state education commissioner, and the State Board of Education would make final decisions on the magistrates’ recommendations.

“The reason is because not all parents have the means to hire an attorney, and they need to have a process,” Harding said of the change.

Bolstering parental involvement in education has become a rallying cry for Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Republicans nationally.

Florida lawmakers last year passed legislation known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which DeSantis signed and used as a basis for an executive order that sought to prohibit student mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor this year, criticized Harding’s bill as part of what she called a “culture war” driven by Republicans.

“This looks to be another dark day here in the Florida Capitol, as Governor DeSantis and Florida Republicans launch an all-out culture war to play to their base in an election year,” Fried said Tuesday.

The House also readied for a vote on a bill (HB 7), sponsored by Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, that deals with discussions of race.

The proposal spells out that school instruction would constitute discrimination if it, for example, “compels” students to believe that they bear “responsibility for, or should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of, actions committed in the past” by members of the same race or sex.

The measure came after DeSantis in December announced a legislative proposal aimed at preventing the teaching of critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American institutions, from the workplace to classrooms.

The House measure does not specifically mention critical race theory and was given the title “Individual Freedom” by its Republican backers. But the measure, which also would restrict how race is discussed in workplace training sessions, appears to be designed to carry out DeSantis’ proposal.

Critics of the bill have argued that it would stifle teachers’ ability to discuss the realities of American history. Democrats brought up various examples to illustrate their point while questioning Avila Tuesday.

Rep. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, asked whether a teacher could effectively describe a historical event such as “Ax Handle Saturday,” when a white mob attacked Black civil rights protesters with ax handles and baseball bats in 1960.

“Is the teacher allowed to discuss that the mob of more than 200 white men were actually Florida Klansmen?” Davis asked.

“If that is included in the curriculum, that teacher can teach it,” Avila replied. “What we’re saying is that that teacher cannot instruct the student and say that, ‘Because you are white, you are responsible in some way, shape or form for this event having occurred.’”

Avila has repeatedly argued the measure would ensure school instruction and employee training is conducted “objectively.”

“Whether it’s a teacher in the classroom or whether it’s an HR (human resources) professional in the workplace, everything that is taught should be from an objective standpoint. We’re not saying that you can’t teach those historical facts … those historical events,” Avila said.

Democrats have disputed arguments that certain historical topics dealing with violence and oppression between racial groups could be taught from a truly objective standpoint.

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