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Florida's public schools open this year under a slate of new education laws

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Florida's public schools open this year under a slate of new education laws signed by Governor Ron DeSantis.

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RON DESANTIS: We have drawn a very clear line in the sand that says our school system is for educating kids, not indoctrinating kids.

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MARTINEZ: The laws broaden parental rights and say no one should be taught to feel guilt for past actions by people of their same race or sex. From member station WUSF, Kerry Sheridan reports.

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: As buses roll into Booker High School on a Friday morning, just over a week into the school year, senior Nora Mitchell says the laws are already having an effect.

NORA MITCHELL: The energy on campus has changed. Teachers are frustrated. They are stressed out and understandably so. They can't teach to the fullest extent. Teachers who want to teach about all-encompassing issues, talk about current events, they are prevented from doing so.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Good morning, Booker High School...

SHERIDAN: Gail Foreman teaches history at Booker High and says the law's vague wording is creating a lot of uncertainty.

GAIL FOREMAN: I have a lot of students that would use preferred names, and they can't use them until we get the paperwork done. So I'm using last names.

SHERIDAN: Now students that want to be called a different name or pronoun must ask a counselor and the principal, who must ask the parents, who can grant or deny permission. It's due to the new Parental Rights in Education law, sometimes called Don't Say Gay. It says all parents must be notified of any change to their child's mental, physical or emotional well-being.

FOREMAN: One of them asked me yesterday, Ms. Foreman, are we really safe on this campus, or are we going to start dealing with gay bashing, homophobia? And I said, no, you're safe in the building; we're going to provide safety for all of our students. But in my heart, I don't know that that's true.

SHERIDAN: Sarasota district officials denied a request to visit a classroom, so I met with Foreman and Jeremy Baldwin, who teaches government and economics at Booker High, before school at 6:30, while it's still dark. We stand outside on the sidewalk.

JEREMY BALDWIN: It's really frustrating, being vocal about it out here and then being in the classroom with the kids, who need to get that acknowledgement, and I've got to be sterile. I can't say anything to affirm them or support them.

SHERIDAN: Last year, Baldwin was asked to remove a flag in his classroom that had rainbow colors and the word coexist. This year, he says the changes have been extensive.

BALDWIN: Everything that we teach in the classroom has to be documented. So from Day 1, I'm supposed to know what I'm going to do on the last day of school and be able to document every site I use, every text I use.

FOREMAN: Some of us have covered our bookcases up with paper. I just told the kids it's off-limit. I have tape up, and they took it down yesterday. I went and got some police tape, so I'm going to put that up today.

SHERIDAN: The Sarasota school district has frozen the purchase of new library books and stopped accepting donated books, even of dictionaries, until they can hire media specialists to vet each book. But not every district is doing the same. In nearby Pinellas County, the district said classroom teachers need not remove their classroom libraries, and issues of students' pronouns are being handled on a case-by-case basis there. Andrew Spar is president of the state's largest teachers union, known as the Florida Education Association.

ANDREW SPAR: These laws are meant to create confusion, are meant to create chaos, and they are doing that. But overwhelmingly, parents see these laws as distractions away from what matters. And we should focus on what matters, which is our kids.

SHERIDAN: Some teachers are vowing not to change how they teach, like Brandt Robinson, who teaches history at Dunedin High School and is in his 26th year of teaching.

BRANDT ROBINSON: I'm not really going to change not only anything that I teach, but I'm not going to change the way I teach about it because I'm really confident that my students understand that it doesn't matter how they feel about a political issue; the most important thing is that they feel valued.

SHERIDAN: Florida school districts are waiting for more detailed guidance from the state, and that could take a while. In the meantime, a number of legal challenges have been filed against the new laws.

For NPR News, I'm Kerry Sheridan in Sarasota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kerry Sheridan
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