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Florida’s restrictive sex ed rules are causing back-to-school mayhem

The new war over AP Psychology is a glimpse at the confusing future of education in the state.

Ron DeSantis, wearing a navy suit and red tie, speaks from a wooden podium at the front of a crowded press room, with a banner saying “Florida: The Education State” in front of him.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) talks with reporters after signing a flurry of education bills in May. An increasingly complex web of rules in the state has school districts confused over which courses they can teach — and which run afoul of the law.
Thomas Simonetti/Washington Post via Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Amid the usual back-to-school preparations this month, yet another College Board AP course was caught in the crossfire of Florida’s ongoing culture war.

This time, it’s AP Psychology that’s pitting school districts and the College Board against the state, with college-bound students caught in the middle. Thanks to a vague law and even vaguer directions from Florida’s education department, some school district leaders remain unsure if the course is even legal to teach. It’s a situation that highlights how difficult — and confusing — it has become for schools to navigate the state’s increasingly restrictive education policies.

The drama began in May, when the Florida Department of Education sent a letter asking the College Board, an organization that administers coursework and exams for college access, to audit and make potential changes to its AP Psychology course, which includes teachings on sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the letter, the course now needed to comply with the new House Bill 1096, otherwise known as the “Don’t Say Period” law, which states that high school lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation must be “age appropriate.”

Unlike its actions in the recent controversy over AP African American Studies in Florida, the College Board didn’t cave to the state’s request. In a stern statement, the organization announced that it would neither modify the course, which it has offered in Florida for 30 years, nor consider college credits for students from schools that watered down the curriculum. According to the College Board, it began receiving messages from teachers “heartbroken that they are being forced to drop AP and instead teach alternatives that have been deemed legal because the courses exclude these topics.” (About 30,000 students statewide had registered for the course, according to the College Board.)

Florida, the College Board declared, had “effectively banned AP Psychology.”

The controversy is only the latest imbroglio changing the face of education for Florida students this term. Earlier this year, the state’s Board of Education rejected the AP African American Studies curriculum, claiming it “lacks educational value,” even after the College Board removed topics such as intersectionality and reparations. Then the state adopted new social studies standards that teach that enslaved people benefited from slavery because it taught them useful skills, drawing ire from across the country, as even Republican Party leaders denounced the standards.

The state has banned books with LGBTQ themes, eliminated DEI programs and initiatives at state universities, disrupted the state’s tenure system, targeted trans health care at universities, limited sex education, and made a mockery of the tiny New College of Florida. The changes all coincide with Gov. Ron DeSantis’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination against former President Donald Trump and other contenders. As the campaign season picks up, critics say they expect DeSantis’s puppeteering of education in the state to only become more chaotic.

How AP Psychology became the latest culture war target

The timeline of events is dizzying. Ahead of the 2023-2024 academic year, Florida’s education Commissioner Manny Díaz Jr. directed his office to conduct a review of the AP Psychology course to ensure that it aligns with the law, in particular Florida’s new “Don’t Say Period” law. The AP course had one target that requires students to “Describe how sex and gender influence socialization and other aspects of development.” Around the same time, the department made its request to the College Board.

As the summer crawled closer to the start of the school year, Florida provided no signal that it would allow the course to be taught in its entirety, while the College Board insisted it was banned. So, many rightfully confused school districts began refusing to offer the course.

Díaz sent a letter to district leaders on August 4 to clear things up. “The Department of Education is not discouraging districts from teaching AP Psychology,” it read. When district leaders asked for further clarification, Díaz responded in a follow-up letter on August 9 — just a day before the school year was set to begin in much of the state — insisting, “It is the Department of Education’s stance that [the] learning target … can be taught consistent with Florida law.” Díaz again rejected the assertion that the state had banned the course.

Districts have had to do a frenzied dance to keep up with the quick changes. One day, Mike Burke, Palm Beach County’s school chief, apologetically announced that he was removing AP Psych, stating, “If there was a way we could teach this course and not have our teachers get arrested, we would do it in a second,” according to the Palm Beach Post — and he reversed that decision just days later.

Other districts aren’t adding back AP Psychology, having already ordered textbooks for alternate courses, while some are refusing to re-adopt the course because they’re fearful that teachers could still face legal consequences. Meanwhile, some districts were prepared to just ignore the state’s mixed messages all along. “I have communicated to our staff to respect the law and follow the law, but not to fear the law and do more than it requires,” Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said in a statement.

For many, however, the fear had already taken hold. Seven of the 11 districts with the largest enrollments in the course said they would make the switch to an alternative class, rushing to catch teachers up on the new material, according to the Washington Post.

Outside a set of large windows, people gather, one holding a sign that reads “Support real education, not DeSantis indoctrination.”
Students and others attend a “Walkout 2 Learn” rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21.
Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Jason Wheeler, the coordinator for communications for Flagler Schools, a public school district on Florida’s northeast coast, told Vox that the district will not offer the course despite the commissioner’s new guidance. Though it was available to students last year, students this year are enrolled in International Baccalaureate Psychology, which also provides college credit, due to what the district has called “the evolving educational landscape.”

Pinellas County Superintendent Kevin Hendrick told the Tampa Bay Times that he did not want to put his teachers and students through more change. The district plans to use the Cambridge AICE course, an alternate course that provides college credit. Teachers recently received training for the course in light of the education department’s initial guidance. Hillsborough County’s superintendent, who oversees 1,800 students who take the course, told the Tampa Bay Times his district also didn’t have immediate plans to change course and offer AP Psychology, then backtracked and added AP Psych back to the curriculum, after all.

The AP Psychology saga is a bellwether for what’s to come

A series of laws signed by Gov. DeSantis in the past two years have created significant challenges for educators. The laws, which critics call “classroom gag orders,” build on one another, creating a web of restrictions that educators must navigate to avoid legal consequences. The AP Psychology course could technically be considered illegal under three of the state’s restrictive education laws — the “Don’t Say Period” law, the “Don’t Say Gay” law, and the Stop WOKE Act, which bans schools and businesses from teaching anything that could make anyone feel “guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress” because of their race, gender, sex, or national origin.

Two high school students hold a sign reading, “Gender doesn’t harm kids, you’re just a homophobe.”
Students hold a “Walkout 2 Learn” rally to protest Florida education bills.
Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

House Bill 1069, the law cited in the AP Psychology letter, is also known as the “Don’t Say Period law” and took effect little more than a month before the school year began. It states that “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation of gender identity may not occur in prekindergarten through grade 8 [...] If such instruction is provided in grades 9 through 12, the instruction must be in a manner that is age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

The law reinforces 2022’s Parental Rights in Education Act, colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay law,” which states that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” In April 2023, the state expanded the law to include grades 4-12.

Each of the laws has been criticized for using vague language. The Parental Rights in Education Act, for example, does not define key phrases such as “age appropriate,” “developmentally appropriate,” or “classroom instruction.” As a result, virtually any kind of classroom discussion and material can be called into question, and under the law, educators can face third-degree felony charges for a violation.

Educators in the state are now scratching their heads over what is and isn’t legal under the law, while heated debates about which books can be made available to students in school libraries and permission slips for students to be called by anything other than their legal names are flustering parents.

The tapestry of laws and controversies is causing teachers at various levels to leave the profession, specifically citing intimidation, anti-LGBTQ laws, and an off-putting “war on wokeness.” Academic freedom advocates told Vox the attack on education will take “years to undo.”

The AP Psychology debacle highlights just how deeply that fear has permeated education in Florida at all levels. “Education in Florida has just gotten very politicized,” Kurt Browning, the superintendent of Pasco County Schools, told the Washington Post. “Teachers teach in fear. They’re scared. It’s no way to educate kids.”

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