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Special magistrates could weigh Florida school book disputes

Reading a book after school at her family's home.
Kristina Barker for KHN
Reading a book after school at her family's home.

State education officials have approved two rules that could help set the stage for special magistrates to hear disputes about issues such as parents' objections to school-library books.

The rules stem from a controversial new law (HB 1069), which, in part, expanded a prohibition on instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. The rules, approved by the State Board of Education, also came amid debates across Florida about attempts to remove or restrict access to books in schools.

Paul Burns, chancellor of the state Department of Education’s Division of K-12 Schools, said the purpose of the rules — one new and one an update of an existing rule — is “to further ensure the health, safety and welfare of Florida’s students.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which approved the law this spring, have intensified scrutiny of books and other materials in schools in recent years. The new rule includes laying out a process for parents to request a special magistrate “to determine whether a school district properly considered a parental objection” to materials in classroom or school libraries.

Special magistrates could be administrative law judges or people appointed by the state education commissioner who have at least five years of administrative law experience.

Burns said the special magistrate process would be used “if a dispute could not be resolved locally.”

State Board of Education Chairman Ben Gibson said disputes over library and classroom materials should be solved at the local level.

“I think the point here with this rule is that we want these decisions to be made locally. We want these decisions to be made in consultation with the parents, the teachers, the superintendent and the school board,” Gibson said.

Critics of the rule described it as one-sided, favoring people who have requested that materials be removed from classrooms or libraries.

Amy Perwien, who spoke in opposition to the rule at Wednesday’s state board meeting in Collier County, said she is a parent of public-school students and that her “parental rights are being trampled by lone book objectors who may not even have children in our public schools.”

READ MORE: Groups challenging books are organized. These South Florida readers want to push back

“This law refers to a parent disagreeing with a school board’s decision. However, the Department of Education has written a rule that only allows the book objector to file an appeal. The proposed rule skews the appeal process to those who have viewpoints based in … limiting speech,” Perwien said.

Esther Byrd, a member of the state board, disputed assertions that the rule is designed to be “one-sided.”

“From my perspective, the decision that is made … could be on either side of the issue,” Byrd said.

To get a special magistrate involved, parents would have to fill out request forms and demonstrate that objections were first filed with their local school boards. Parents also would have to prove that “the school board has either ruled on the objection or has failed to timely process the objection” and describe how the district didn’t properly establish or follow policies to resolve the objection.

Special magistrates would issue recommendations about “whether a parent has demonstrated that the school district has failed to create an adequate policy” or a district “has materially failed to follow that policy.” The recommendations would go to the state education board.

Meanwhile, the board on Wednesday approved a rule change that deals with a form parents can use to request special magistrates in “unresolved student welfare complaints.” The form was changed to reflect the 2023 law’s broadening of the prohibition on instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity.

The law expanded the prohibition to include grades pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The law previously barred such instruction in kindergarten through third grade.

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Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

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