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Democrats make it hard for Republicans to pass bills curbing LGBTQ and racial justice teaching

Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media

There are less than 20 days left in the Florida legislative session and some of the bitterest battles are now being fought. Democrats are too few in number to stop several major policy issues around how schools deal with LGBTQ students, and teach about race and culture—but while they may not be able to prevent the measures from passing, they’re determined not to let them go through without a fight.

“We have 18 more days to go, so basically we’re in Hell week until Sine Die. Sorry. It’s pretty shitty," Book said of the myriad of proposals Democrats find alarming that are nearing final votes in the House and Senate.

Tuesday, the House began debating two major pieces of legislation aimed at curbing classroom conversations around race, culture, gender and sexual identity. One bill discourages any discussion of race or history that could make a person feel bad about themselves. It discourages those talks both in public school classrooms and in workplaces and represents the backlash to the social justice movement. It's dubbed the anti-WOKE bill, and is a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis who has vowed to eliminate Critical Race Theory from classrooms, even though the concept—which examines how racism impacts government policies—is not taught in public schools.

The other proposal targets how schools teach and discuss issues around sex, sexuality and gender orientation. It’s been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by its opponents, and it’s aimed at discouraging classroom conversations around those issues in lower grades. The proposal also revises how schools should respond to children who have questions, or may be questioning and calls for parents to be notified. Senate minority leader Evan Jenne called the bills “exceptionally cruel and disheartening.”

Both proposals are mirrored in Republican-led states across the country. Opponents say they’re part of a national effort by Republicans to silence the voices of people who’ve been historically underrepresented and discriminated against.

“There’s been a narrative this session of suppressing stories," said Democratic Rep. Fentrice Driskoll, speaking to reporters ahead of Tuesday's House floor session.

"Suppressing the stories of women and not considering their lives and context when it comes to that 15-week abortion ban. Suppressing the stories of LGBTQ youth and their families when it comes to the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. And now we’re suppressing the history and the stories and the lived experience of Black people," she said.

Driskoll sees a pattern of behavior from Republicans she finds disturbing, starting from last year's HB1, the so-called anti-riot bill, which DeSantis pitched in the wake of the death of George Floyd—a Black man killed by a white police officer. Floyd's death set off a year of protests around the country.

“America has a history and sometimes that history has been challenging," Driskoll said. "Whether it's slavery or Japanese internment camps in WW2, not being able to teach history truthfully and factually does not prepare our children for the future. And we need to be teaching history in a factual way to show our young people that no, we haven’t always been perfect, but we have heroes who stepped up to the plate to help us attain that more perfect and diverse, union.”   

Republicans, said Book, may say they're carrying such bills in the name of parental rights—but the attacks, she said, feel more personal than ever before.

“I know it's not coming from a mean-spirited place, but I believe this is probably one of the worst sessions I’ve seen that we’re taking issues that will deeply, deeply affect Floridians.”

Defenders of the proposals on everything from lowering the state’s abortion limit to 15 weeks, to trying to censor issues and ideas children and even adults may be exposed to, say they’re doing it in the name of freedom.

“Frankly, if our corporate 500 businesses would stop focusing on this concept of putting training in place that makes people apologize for who they are as a person—that’s counterintuitive to who we are as a country. What your father does not dictate who you are. You are your own person, with your own actions and your own choices," he said, during a January House committee hearing on the anti-woke bill, HB 7.

For Republican Rep. Bryan Avila, the sponsor of HB7, it's about putting the best interests of everyday Floridians first.

“We want the best for this country, we want the best for our residents and we want the best for our state.”

“It’s terrible," said Book, about the issues Republicans are carrying this year. "It’s a terrible session and it's dangerous for Floridians. We’re pandering to the religious right who are neither religious, nor right.

Still, Democrats are powerless to do much to block the bills. But they can slow them down.

“One [of] my leaders who taught me a lot was [former] Senator [Oscar] Braynon. And he taught me that sometimes you can't make it easy and that’s your leverage.”

Even when the dust settles, it's likely not the end of the fighting. The next battles will be waged in court.

Copyright 2022 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.
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