In Miami, U.S. Education Secretary blasts 'Don't Say Gay' law expansion
Florida students deserve to feel safe at school — that was U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona's message during a stop in Miami on Thursday.
Cardona’s visit to Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the nation's third-largest school district — came a day after state lawmakers voted to expand the "Parental Rights in Education" law, the one critics call the "Don't Say Gay" law.
The new bill extends the ban on classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation up to the 8th grade. Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the measure into law.
“There are several states where some state legislation is really attacking public schools — limiting access to students, limiting access to curriculum materials, and even making students feel unwelcome,” Cardona told reporters following an event at Dr. Frederica S. Wilson / Skyway Elementary School in Miami Gardens.
“As a father, as an educator, that's the opposite of what we need for our children.”
Cardona did not say whether the department’s Office of Civil Rights would have a role in reviewing the state-level legislation, but reiterated his personal concerns around the measures.
“While state and local decisions are the ones that govern education — as they should be — it's really important that we do what we saw here. Let's wrap our arms around all students and embrace them for who they are,” Cardona said. "Because if they feel comfortable, they're going to do better.”
During his time in South Florida, Cardona met with Wilson, as well as students, teachers, principals and district leaders.
Cardona learned about trade education options during a tour of Turner Technical Arts High School and held a roundtable discussion at Skyway to hear about the local student mentorship organization 5000 Role Models of Excellence.
The program — which pairs young men with older male mentors — was founded by the congresswoman, who previously served as a principal at Skyway and an MDCPS School Board Member.
“If you have a program like this that helps children see what they are and know that people are not going to give up on them,” Cardona said, “you can see the beauty that comes out of that.”
Following the event, other district officials weighed in on the expansion of the state law that, among other things, restrict students’ and teachers’ ability to use their preferred pronouns.
“We have to make sure that we focus on what we have to do — which is academically prepare students, support their mental health, their wellness,” said MDCPS Superintendent Jose Dotres.
“We have to make sure that as a school district, we are positioning our students for success. And that whatever support they need, whether it's counseling, whether it's academic rendering, whether it's bridges of post secondary growth, that's what we're here for.”
Additionally, the bill makes it easier for people to challenge school books. If an objector claims the book contains material that “describes sexual conduct,” the measure requires the books to be removed from schools within five days of the objection and “remain unavailable to students” until the objection is resolved.”
The original version of the “Parental Rights In Education Law” has already prompted a flurry of changes — spurring districts to remove resources designed to support LGBTQ students and pushing some teachers to consider leaving the classrooms and others to pull books off their shelves.
“I think right now we should not be making more restrictions on our students. It is important that they feel that they can fully express themselves and that they feel safe,” said MDCPS School Board Member Lucia Baez-Geller. “We should do everything we can to make our school and our classrooms a place of belonging.”
The Associated Press and the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.