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Florida's largest teachers union takes issue with state civics training, 'Don't Say Gay' law

A bald man with a goatee and wearing a blue-gray suit records himself on videochat. His organization's logo is used as a background.
Jack Prator/WUSF Public Media
Andrew Spar, Florida Education Association president, said he is concerned with language and guidance from the Florida Department of Education. He wants the discussion about Florida's schools to return to what he deems as important issues: teacher and bus driver shortages.

Andrew Spar, Florida Education Association president, said the latest series of Supreme Court rulings has already muddied separation of church and state.

Some Florida educators are raising the alarm, saying the state appears to be chipping away at separation of church and state and creating a divide between teachers and students over gender identity.

Multiple media outlets reported that teachers attending recent Florida Department of Education training on a new civics initiative say thecontent pushed Christian and conservative ideologies over opposing views.

At the same time, Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the Don’t Say Gay law by opponents, went into effect July 1.

Ahead of its enactment, school districts received guidance from the Florida Department of Education about what it means for teachers at that level.

Some districts have interpreted the guidance to mean that teachers have to take down LGBTQ stickers on doors and report to parents if a student comes out to them.

Andrew Spar, Florida Education Association president, said the guidance threatens the bond between teacher and student.

“The concern, when you hear about 'don't have gay-straight alliances in our schools, don't post pride posters in your classrooms,'” he said. “It is breaking down the ability of teachers to have those important relationships with students that help them succeed in learning and in life.”

The law immediately bans instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade.

The state indicates it still has to develop guidelines for the part of the law over what is considered "age appropriate" for students above third grade.

A lawsuit against the legislation was brought by LGBTQ groups in March, though the state and some school districts have filed motions to dismiss the case.

“Far from banning discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity, the legislation expressly allows age- and developmentally appropriate education on those subjects,” attorneys for the state wrote in a court filing challenging the law.

Spar said the state has been “intentionally confusing” in its language surrounding the law.

“This bill talks about not teaching sex education in grades K-3,” he said. “We don't, we haven't, we aren't and we won't teach sex education in grades K-3. It's not part of the curriculum. It's not something we do. And so this bill was really based on a false premise.”

The Biden administration has taken special interest in the Florida law, and is urging students and parents to file complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights if they feel discriminated against.

“This is not an issue of ‘parents’ rights,’” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement Friday. “This is discrimination, plain and simple. It’s part of a disturbing and dangerous nationwide trend of right-wing politicians cynically targeting LGBTQI+ students, educators, and individuals to score political points. It encourages bullying and threatens students’ mental health, physical safety and well-being. It censors dedicated teachers and educators who want to do the right thing and support their students.”

The debate between the Biden administration and Florida leadership has extended to the Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative backed by Gov. DeSantis.

In a statement released Thursday, DeSantis slammed the federal government for its stance on critical race theory, an academic concept that examines the country’s history through the lens of race and society.

“While the Biden administration is seeking to award grants to indoctrinate students with ideologies like Critical race theory, in Florida we have focused on Civics Excellence, teaching accurate American History without an ideological agenda,” DeSantis said in the release. “Our students and teachers have worked hard to elevate their Civics Excellence and are proving to the nation that Florida is the national model for cultivating great citizens.”

But Spar said the latest series of Supreme Court rulings has already muddied separation of church and state, and he's worried the state’s new civics initiative will alienate students who come from different religious backgrounds.

“The governor has accused teachers and others of indoctrinating students,” Spar said. “It seems like the Department of Education might be setting itself up to try to indoctrinate students based on religious beliefs that are not the beliefs of the families of many of our students.”

The governor’s office said 2,500 teachers will complete the civics training by the end of July, and is promising them each a $3,000 bonus.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Jack Prator is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for summer of 2022.