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North Florida teachers say political battles are driving them out of classrooms

 Chairs are seated on top of the desks in an empty classroom after school at Sabal Palm Elementary.
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
Chairs are seated on top of the desks in an empty classroom after school at Sabal Palm Elementary.

Several Florida school boards are being sued for changing their LGBTQ guidelines and removing similar material from their libraries and classrooms in response.

Florida’s new restrictions on discussions of race, diversity, and LGBTQ issues in classrooms have some teachers and school districts worried that partisan politics are seeping over into schools. Critics of those new policies say they’re contributing to a massive increase in teacher vacancies.

Megan Grant taught English at Wakulla High School until the end of 2021. She says she left after being placed on leave while the district investigated her for allegedly teaching Critical Race Theory. According to Grant, a white male student said one of her assignments made him feel uncomfortable.

“Basically they [the school district] were trying to see if I was teaching Critical Race Theory," she said. "When they said that I did laugh because, again, I was teaching 10th grade, not doing literary theory with 10th graders. [I was] just trying to teach them tone and mood. This is a poem I’ve taught several times.”

The poem that got Grant in trouble was “On the Subway,” which discusses white privilege.

The State Board of Education banned the teaching of Critical Race Theory in June 2021. The legislature reinforced that ban with a new law this year. CRT, as it’s called, is an academic framework that examines how institutions perpetuate racism. It’s usually taught in graduate programs but it’s become a catch-all for some who believe any discussion of race and racism, is divisive.

Grant says school officials questioned her about content related to race and gender.

“It seemed like those were the trigger words," she said. "They asked me ‘Well, what is this about? Ok, well we read this poem that’s about racial profiling. We read this poem about a girl whose growing up.’ But because it was a girl, like about gender, apparently that was a trigger.”

Grant says while the school district did not find she was teaching CRT, she was no longer allowed to create her own lesson plans. She now teaches in the Leon County School District. Wakulla School officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Grant’s experience in Wakulla came before a new law approved earlier this year that bans teaching race and gender-related topics that could make a group of people feel guilt or shame for actions committed in the past by other members of that group.

Another new law recently in effect bans talk of sexual orientation and gender identity in primary grades. It also requires parents be told of their children’s requests to use different pronouns.

“Well, there’s no doubt that a lot of what’s happening right now, again is based on confusion and chaos," said Andrew Spar, President of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

"And second of all, is having a chilling effect on what is discussed and taught in schools.”

The new parental rights law, coupled with the anti-CRT law and the lack of guidance from the Florida Department of Education, has each of Florida’s school districts making up their own policies. Several Florida school boards are being sued for changing their LGBTQ guidelines and removing similar material from their libraries and classrooms in response. Others have labeled books warning of potentially contentious subjects, and some, like Leon, are asking to review teachers' classroom materials.

Leon County School District Superintendent Rocky Hanna says teachers are worried they could be sued for saying the wrong thing.

"It's now scared our teachers," he said. "They don’t know what can they say, what can’t they say. If I make a child feel bad are they going to sue me? Am I protected if they sue me? I don’t make a lot of money, are they coming after my family? We already have a teacher shortage. We have a teacher shortage crisis. This is only going to exacerbate that situation.”

Spar says the pressure on teachers is driving up vacancies across the state. There are more than 9,000 empty teaching and support positions for the upcoming school year. Spar blames the political agenda he says Gov. Ron DeSantis has injected into the public school system.

“This constant demeaning of the profession, and again when the governor goes around and states that teachers are teaching kids to hate cops, which is not true," he said. "Or teachers are teaching sex education in K-3, which is not true. And he knows it, right? And when he goes around the state saying teachers are teaching kids to hate white people, not true. And the governor knows it.”

The governor says he’s trying to protect kids and the parents who may not agree with what he sees as a so-called “WOKE” ideology regarding race and gender.

“We’re not going to have some first grader to be told that ‘Yeah, your parents named you Johnny. You were born a boy, but maybe your really a girl,'” he said.

Meanwhile, Grant says she’s happy working in the Leon County School District. But she’s concerned about the impact the new restrictions on race, gender and sexual identity will have on her former students when they venture beyond county lines.

“I assume that students will leave Wakulla eventually, even if it’s just like to visit and how are they going to be with other people if they can’t handle reading about other people,” she said.

Compounding fears among teachers is an impending clash between state and federal law. The Florida Department of Education is telling local districts to ignore federal guidance that requires schools to let kids play on sports teams that align with their gender identity. The agency also says districts do not have to let students use bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity.
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Sarah Mueller is the first recipient of the WFSU Media Capitol Reporting Fellowship. She’ll be covering the 2017 Florida legislative session and recently earned her master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Illinois Springfield. Sarah was part of the Illinois Statehouse press corps as an intern for NPR Illinois in 2016. When not working, she enjoys playing her yellow lab, watching documentaries and reading memoirs.