While many of the controversial education bills in Florida have limited how schools teach about history or gender, the latest, House Bill 1069, is turning back to a more traditional target for conservatives: sex education.
If passed, the law would require that teachers get approval for materials used in sexual health classes, which can only be taught in grades six through 12 under the law. It would also require that schools teach a specific definition of “sex” and “reproductive roles.”
The bill advanced last week at a Florida House Education Quality Subcommittee hearing — bolstered by a Republican supermajority — and is on its way to a vote on the state House floor. Ultimately, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will likely sign it into law.
The bill joins DeSantis’s two other education initiatives — the “Don’t Say Gay” law and the Stop WOKE Act — in seeking to restrict what teachers can talk about in the classroom. And while it’s nominally about sex education, it would also reinforce those laws’ restrictions on what students learn about gender and relationships, and increase the state’s ability to restrict what students read in the school library by giving parents and community members the power to object to some materials.
During the subcommittee hearing last week, Democrats were aghast that lawmakers didn’t consider whether a topic as innocuous as menstrual cycles would be barred from discussions at school under the legislation. Rep. Ashley Viola Gantt asked Rep. Stan McClain, who proposed the legislation, whether the bill would prohibit young girls from talking about their periods in schools.
“Does this bill prohibit conversations about menstrual cycles ― because we know that typically the age is between 10 and 15 ― so if little girls experience their menstrual cycle in fifth grade or fourth grade, will that prohibit conversations from them since they are in the grade lower than sixth grade?” Gantt asked McClain during the committee hearing. McClain responded that the bill would restrict such conversations, but later said the goal of the bill is not to punish little girls.
“Teachers are a safe place. Schools are a safe place. [But teachers] can’t even talk to their students about these very real and biological things that happen to their bodies, these little girls. It wasn’t even contemplated that little girls can have their periods in third grade or fourth grade,” Gantt said in her testimony. “If we are preparing children to be informed adults, we need to inform them about their bodies and that’s something very basic.”
The bill would regulate Florida’s already disjointed sex ed landscape
Florida schools are not required to teach sex education, but are required to teach comprehensive health education. There is no statewide curriculum for sex education, which makes instruction inconsistent across the state, according to an ABC report. Plus, Florida has long touted its opt-out policy, which allows parents to remove their children from instruction on reproductive health.
Critics of the bill fear that it will push the state away from embracing comprehensive sex education, which advocates say is necessary. A 2019 CDC youth risk behavior study found that more than half of Florida’s 12th graders had already had sexual intercourse; of those who were sexually active, half of them did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter.
The bill is also another avenue for DeSantis and his allies to enforce conservative beliefs about sex and gender. According to the bill, “sex” is either female or male “based on the organization of the body of such person for a specific reproductive role.” One’s reproductive role and sex are determined by their “sex chromosomes, naturally occurring sex hormones, and internal and external genitalia present at birth.”
This law goes further than other proposed legislation that would require teachers to use pronouns that correspond with a student’s gender assigned at birth, which opponents of the proposal have argued is an attack on trans students and faculty members.
In building on earlier book restrictions already in effect in various parts of the state, the law would require that materials used to teach about reproductive health or sexually transmitted diseases be approved by the state education department. The bill does not detail what the approval process would entail. Teachers subject to book bans in certain districts, including the Duval County school district, have already described the process as time consuming and shrouded in mystery.
Sex ed, health, and science classes that teach about HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases can only discuss human sexuality in grades six through 12. And the courses must abide by the idea that “biological males impregnate biological females by fertilizing the female egg with male sperm; that the female then gestates the offspring.” Under the law, these reproductive roles are “binary, stable, and unchangeable” — a statement that refuses to admit the existence of trans and nonbinary people.
Democrats also noted that limiting certain discussions to middle school and higher grade levels could be harmful to younger students.
“Imagine a little girl in fourth grade going to the bathroom and finding blood in her panties and thinking that she is dying. This is a reality for little girls in school. They can be in foster care. They could have parents who just work a lot because wages are stagnant and the price of living continues to grow,” Gantt said. “She doesn’t actually know what’s going on. And her teacher doesn’t have the ability to tell her that this is a part of life because she’s in the fourth grade.”
The law doubles down on abstinence education, which the state has long promoted, despite evidence that abstinence-only education does not lower adolescent birth rates. According to the law, teaching abstinence from sexual activity is a “certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy.” The law emphasizes that teachers must teach the benefits of monogamous heterosexual marriage. The bill says teachers must teach material that is grade and age appropriate for students but does not offer additional details.
Relatedly, as DeSantis prepares his expected presidential run, his administration is moving to expand its “Don’t Say Gay” law, which took effect in 2022. It bars grades K-3 teachers from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation, and a proposed State Board of Education rule, which comes up for a vote in April and doesn’t require legislative approval, would expand the restriction to grades four to 12.
The bans keep coming
DeSantis has said his education legislation empowers parents, giving them greater latitude to monitor what happens in classrooms. This bill carries this effort forward, though advocates have said such laws allow parental overreach and take power away from teachers who are experts.
The proposed legislation tasks district school boards with choosing course content and instructional materials used in classrooms. This means that boards have the power to control what’s available in school and classroom libraries and classroom reading lists. They’re also tasked with developing guidelines for how parents can object to what’s being taught and make it easier for them to do so.
The same provision even empowers “a resident of the county” to submit objections. Content can be objected to for a variety of reasons under the law, including if it depicts sexual content, is “not suited to student needs,” or is inappropriate for a student’s grade level or age group.
As with other Florida legislation, if certain material is objected to it must be removed from a classroom within five school days from when the objection was filed and cannot return to the school until the objection is investigated and resolved. If a school district finds an objection to be valid under the law, teachers must discontinue its use.
The bill also opens up avenues for parents to contest a school board’s decision to adopt certain course materials via petition. School districts are to consider petitions during hearings and make a determination. If a parent disagrees with a district’s decision, the law gives them the power to request that the commissioner of education appoint a special magistrate to issue a recommendation for how to resolve the dispute.
These allowances build on legislation that Florida passed last year that limits the kinds of materials that schools can carry in their libraries.
Republicans have argued that these bills do not constitute book bans, but activists say that’s exactly what they are.
“This is a ban because the language in the bill says this information will be removed completely. What if a parent says I don’t want my child to ever be exposed to slavery and that part of our history?” Gantt asked during her testimony. “There are so many ways we can keep children safe and informed and have these conversations.”
If signed by DeSantis, the law would take effect July 1, 2023.