TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida senators on Tuesday gave initial approval to a controversial proposal that critics have dubbed the "don’t say gay" bill because it could curtail school discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Republican-dominated Senate Education Committee approved the measure (SB 1834) in a 6-3 vote along party lines, despite testimony from dozens of opponents who argued that the bill could remove teachers as a lifeline for vulnerable LGBTQ youths.
The bill would require that school districts "may not encourage" discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity "in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students."
Parents could file lawsuits against school districts for violations of the bill.
Sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, characterized the bill as clarifying the lines of teachers’ responsibilities in the classroom.
"Some discussions are for (having) with your parents. And I think when you start having sexual-type discussions with children, you’re entering a very dangerous zone. Your awareness should pop up right away, this isn’t teaching," Baxley said.
But John Harris Maurer, public policy director for LGBTQ-advocacy group Equality Florida, took exception to Baxley’s argument that such discussions would be inherently sexual in nature.
"It is patently offensive to say that school discussions, even with young children, referring to two moms or two dads, parents like those that are sitting in this room that are your constituents … is somehow dangerous or inappropriate," Maurer said.
Democrats on the panel peppered Baxley with questions about what they described as vagueness in the bill.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, a West Park Democrat who is gay, argued that the bill’s reference to "primary grade levels" could conflict with an assertion by Baxley that it would apply only to kindergarten through third-grade.
Baxley also argued that the measure would not affect private conversations between teachers and individual students but would only deal with "procedures" and "curriculum" in a classroom.
Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, argued the bill’s wording did not align with Baxley’s description of how it would be applied.
"So, I think the challenge here (is) when you put words on paper in a bill, it makes it really difficult to distinguish between private discussions as a friend with a teacher and what you’re saying, they have to call the parent or they’re going to get sued," Polsky said. "I would encourage a look back at these words, because I don’t think it’s making it clear what you’re trying to get at."
Incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, questioned the part of the bill that would allow parents to sue school districts over violations.
Passidomo, who will become president in November, asked Baxley if he is willing to change the bill from allowing lawsuits to enforcement being based on complaints that could ultimately lead to investigations and fines for school districts.
"I’m very interested in whatever kind of enforcement mechanism would be best," Baxley replied.
Other parts of the bill are aimed at ensuring parents are informed of any changes to students’ services or monitoring of students’ mental or physical health.
The bill is a continuation of Republicans’ push to increase parental involvement in issues related to education. Lawmakers last year passed a bill known as the "Parents’ Bill of Rights," which served in part as the basis for an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis aimed at prohibiting mask mandates in schools.
DeSantis this week signaled his support for the so-called "don’t say gay" bill.
"My goal is to educate kids on the subjects, math, reading, science, all the things that are so important. I don’t want the schools to kind of be a playground for ideological disputes," DeSantis said during a press event in Bartow on Tuesday.
Parental rights in education also has become a political flashpoint nationally and played a key role in Republican Glenn Youngkin’s election last year as governor of Virginia, which Baxley referenced during discussion on the bill.
"The reason that this is in such a feverish pitch, is just what you saw in Virginia when under all this stuff with (parents) being a lot more involved in (their) kids’ school activity and work in response to the pandemic, they found out they’re being left out of the equation. And there’s new ideas and new things being planted that they don’t even know about," Baxley said. "When they get a statement … from the leadership saying they have no business with what we do in schools … that’s when it explodes. That’s when moms show up and pack rooms."
A similar House measure (HB 1557) has advanced through the Education & Employment Committee and needs approval from the Judiciary Committee before it could go to the House floor.