PHOTO COURTESY NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Sen. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, sponsored a controversial education bill that passed Wednesday and is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In one of the most-controversial education issues of the 2023 legislative session, the Florida Senate on Wednesday passed a measure that would expand last year’s “Parental Rights in Education” law — known to critics as “don’t say gay.”

The bill, which is ready to go to Gov. Ron DeSantis, also seeks to restrict the way teachers and students can use their preferred pronouns in schools, a provision that has drawn ire from LGBTQ-advocacy groups.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 27-12 along straight party lines to pass the bill (HB 1069), with Democrats arguing the measure is an effort to “legislate away the gay.” The House voted 77-35 to pass the bill last month. DeSantis is expected to sign it.

Last year’s law bars instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. But the measure approved Wednesday would broaden the prohibition to pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Senate sponsor Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, and other bill supporters said it is geared toward protecting children who are “at more impressionable ages” and allowing parents to be in control of such discussions.

“This legislation will protect the rights of parents to have a say in their children’s education and ensure that students are not subjected to inappropriate material,” Yarborough said.

“Teachers should be able to spend their time focusing on skills that help a child succeed in life, not delving into every social issue or being forced to use language that would violate their personal convictions,” Yarborough added.

But Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Davie, said the bill “marginalizes children” and represents an insult to teachers.

“This bill insults the professionalism of educators. It takes away freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom to be treated equally in our public schools,” Book said.

Wednesday’s vote came after the State Board of Education last month approved a rule change that largely prohibited instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades. The rule dealt with an educators’ code of conduct and spelled out that teachers could face suspension or revocation of their educator certificates for violations of the rule.

Speaking to reporters after the bill passed, Yarborough said putting an expanded prohibition into law “establishes a floor.” Rules often can be more easily changed than laws.

“Our bill, if that rule were to change, with the law still in place, the floor would be eighth grade,” Yarborough said.

The bill also would require that it “shall be the policy” of every public school that “a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.”

Teachers and other school employees would be prohibited from telling students their preferred pronouns and would be barred from asking students about their preferred pronouns.

Sen. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, characterized the bill as a move toward “common sense.”

“Raising small children in this climate carries with it a lot of challenges today. And you see society coming at our children in a culture war, that it has an agenda to make them confused,” Grall said.

The bill also would build on another controversial 2022 law that increased scrutiny of school-library books and instructional materials. The bill, in part, would take steps to make the process of objecting to books and instructional materials easier.

For example, the bill would require that forms used for objecting to books to be “easy to read and understand” and be readily accessible on school districts’ websites.

In instances where an objection is made based on possible pornographic content or material that “describes sexual conduct,” the bill would require the materials to be removed from schools within five days of the objection and “remain unavailable to students of that school until the objection is resolved.”

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, described that part of the bill as a “ban-first, review-later” policy.

The Senate debate laid bare a fundamental disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about whether the bill amounts to “disrespect” of LGBTQ youths.

“What we’re doing here is codifying disrespect, just because someone is different than us,” Sen. Tracie Davis, D-Jacksonville, said.

But Yarborough rebutted Democrats’ arguments.

“This bill is not giving rise to someone being disrespected, because you can love and respect someone as another human being without agreeing with every choice they make or every view they have. We see that every day in the Senate,” Yarborough said.

Polsky, however, said the measure targets LGBTQ people.

“Trans is a fact of life. Gay is a fact of life. You can’t legislate away the gay, as much as you might try,” Polsky said.

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