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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida education bills touch on book bans, school vouchers, 'identity politics' and more

Students sit in a classroom and are pictured from behind. One girl raises her hand as a blurry teacher is in the background near a whiteboard.
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The 2023 Florida legislative session ended with a number of bills affecting various parts of the state education system.

The legislative session has come to an end and bills are headed to the governor's desk. Here are some key pieces of legislation that public education watchers will be following in the upcoming school year.

Lawmakers in Florida's 2024 legislative session discussed a swath of education issues.

Bills headed to the governor's desk touch on such issues as regulating the recently expanded voucher program, restricting topics in teacher training and easing regulations on public schools.

Public education advocates said they will be watching bills that they believe will become flash points in the coming school year.

"The next step is to watch the rules being made by the State Board of Education," said Damaris Allen, president of the education advocacy group, Families for Strong Public Schools. "How the board interprets the legislation is what impacts students most and impacts them directly."

Allen says she and her group will be watching upcoming board meetings and speaking during public comment sessions.

Here are some highlights from the 2024 legislative session:

Educator Preparation Programs (HB 1291)

The bill restricts certain topics from being taught in teacher education programs.

It says program courses may not "distort significant historical events" or include curriculum that teaches "identity politics," violates the state's Florida Educational Equity Act, or "is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities."

Opponents have compared this bill to the Stop WOKE Act passed in 2022, which has been blocked by courts in higher education and workplaces.

Book Challenge Restrictions (HB 1285)

Excessive book challenges have disrupted some Florida school districts. HB 1285 seeks to curtail that by limiting people without children in the district to one challenge per month.

The final version does not include a House provision that sought to assess $100 "processing" fees for unsuccessful book objections by certain people.

The bill comes after Gov. Ron DeSantis said that widespread book banning is being used to create a political narrative and that measures were needed to curb "frivolous" book challenges.

Chaplains in Schools (HB 931)

In response to a lack of counselors in schools, lawmakers in conservative states, including Florida, have put forth the idea of allowing volunteer chaplains in public schools.

HB 931 would allow chaplains, who do not have the same license and training as school counselors, to provide "support, services, and programs to students" with parental consent.

Chaplains will be required to pass a background screening like other non-instructional staff, the bill says.

Along with concerns about violating the separation of church and state, Allen questioned the thoroughness of the background checks.

"These chaplains will have access to students in a way that should, at the very minimum, require a level two background check," said Allen, who added that involves fingerprinting.

Patriotic Organizations in Schools (HB 1317)

Representatives of eight "patriotic organizations" would be allowed to visit schools during school hours and instructional time to speak with students and distribute materials to encourage participation in those groups.

The organizations are: Big Brothers-Big Sisters of America, Boy Scouts of America, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Civil Air Patrol, Future Farmers of America, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, the Marine Corps League and the Naval Sea Cadet Corps.

"Patriotic Organization" is defined in the bill as a "youth membership organization serving young people under the age of 21 with an educational purpose that promotes patriotism and civic involvement."

History of Communism classes (SB 1264/HB 1349)

K-12 students could start receiving instruction on the history of communism by the 2026-2027 school year. The bill also sets up the establishment of a state museum on the history of communism.

Instruction must be "age appropriate and developmentally appropriate" and includes teachings on domestic communist movements, atrocities committed in foreign countries under the guidance of communism, and "discussions comparing communism and totalitarianism with the principles of freedom and democracy."

Senate bill sponsor Jay Collins, R-Tampa, and other supporters warned that young people are increasingly viewing communism in a positive light.

Before the final passage, Democrats attempted to include lessons on "McCarthyism" and how the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots could lead to communism. The amendments did not make the final version.

Deregulation Bills (SB 7002, SB 7004)

Dubbed "Learn Local," the bills are a comprehensive package of education legislation aimed at reducing "onerous" regulations on public schools, according to Senate President Kathleen Passidomo.

Passidomo, R-Naples, made school deregulation a priority so that public schools can remain competitive with other education options, especially as the state expanded private school vouchers last year.

SB 7002 (which was combined with SB 7000) focuses on alleviating regulations on school administration and finances.

Among other things, it simplifies financial requirements and gives school districts more authority over teacher certification and training, instructor contracts and salary (including the use of advanced degrees in salary adjustments), personnel evaluations and collective bargaining.

SB 7004 gives school districts revised requirements on the student side. For example, it revises the plan to identify students in Kindergarten through grade 2 who are deficient in reading or math.

It also lowers the age that a student may take the high school equivalency exam from 18 to 16.

A previous version would have removed the requirement that high school students pass the state's tenth-grade English language arts exam and Algebra I end-of-course exam to earn a diploma, but those provisions did not pass.

Universal Voucher Fix (HB 1403)

HB 1403 is meant to clarify the universal voucher program, which was expanded last year. The bill establishes some guidelines to distribute voucher funds to families in a timely manner after public outcry on late payments.

It also outlines a plan for voucher distributors Step Up For Students and AAA to publish clearer rules on what home schoolers can purchase with voucher funds. The proposal came amid reports that some voucher recipients were purchasing kayaks, big-screen TVs and amusement park tickets, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Lawmakers, however, struck down an amendment that would have put limits on those purchases and restricted it to materials related to only core subjects such as reading, mathematics, social studies and science.

The bill still calls for the funding organizations to work with the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities on developing a purchasing guide by Aug. 1, 2024.

Additional information from the News Service of Florida was used in this story.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.