Florida legislators have proposed a spate of new laws that would reshape K-12 and higher education in the state, from requiring teachers to use pronouns matching children’s sex as assigned at birth to establishing a universal school choice voucher program.
The legislation has already drawn protest from Democratic politicians, education associations, free speech groups and LGBTQ advocates, who say the bills will restrict educators’ ability to instruct children honestly, harm transgender and nonbinary students and strip funding from public schools.
It shall be the policy of every public K-12 educational institution … that a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait.— Florida House Bill 1223
“It really is further and further isolating LGBTQ students,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign. “It’s making it hard for them to receive the full support that schools should be giving every child.”
Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors, warned that the legislation — especially the bill that would prevent students from majoring in certain topics — threatens to undermine academic freedom.
“The state telling you what you can and cannot learn, that is inconsistent with democracy,” Mulvey said. “It silences debate, stifles ideas and limits the autonomy of educational institutions which … made American higher education the envy of the world.”
Sen. Clay Yarborough (R), who introduced one of the 2023 education bills — Senate Bill 1320, which forbids requiring school staff and students to use “pronouns that do not correspond with [a] person’s sex” and delays education on sexual orientation and gender identity until after eighth grade — said in a statement that his law would enshrine the “God-given” responsibility of parents to raise their children.
“The decision about when and if certain topics should be introduced to young children belongs to parents,” Yarborough said in the statement. “The bill also protects students and teachers from being forced to use language that would violate their personal convictions.”
The proposed laws have a high likelihood of passing in the State House, where GOP legislators make up a supermajority. Even before the landslide victory by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in November, very few Republicans pushed back against his policy proposals, instead crafting and passing bills that align with the governor’s mission to remake education in Florida from kindergarten through college.
This year’s crop of proposed education bills accelerates those efforts, expanding on controversial ideas from the past two years and adding a few more. Tina Descovich, co-founder of the conservative group Moms for Liberty and a Florida resident, said her group backs the DeSantis education agenda “100 percent” — and that she thinks his policies are catching on outside the state.
“You see governors picking up education as a top issue, and you even see presidential candidates now putting education as a top issue,” she said. “I think Gov. DeSantis has set the path for that.”
Rick Hess, director of education policy studies for the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, predicted the education laws will play well with voters both in Florida and nationwide, boosting DeSantis’s chances at the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
“The direction of this policy is sensible policy,” Hess said, referring especially to laws limiting young children’s learning on sex and gender. “It is both attractive to the DeSantis base but also has been shown to poll quite well with the center right, the center and even with parts of the center left.”
A May 2022 Fox News poll found that 55 percent of parents favor state laws that bar teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with students before fourth grade. An October 2022 University of Southern California survey, meanwhile, found a partisan split: More than 80 percent of Democrats said high school students should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, compared to roughly a third of Republicans. Just 7 percent of adults in both political camps supported assigning reading that depicts sex between people of the same sex to elementary-schoolers, per the survey.
The bills in Florida come as at least 25 states have passed 64 laws in the last three academic years reshaping what children can learn and do at school, according to a Washington Post tally. Many of these laws circumscribe education on race, gender and sexual identity, boost parental oversight of school libraries and curriculums or restrict the rights of transgender children in classrooms and on the playing field.
Florida already passed several such laws, including the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which prohibits certain ways of teaching about race. (A judge blocked some aspects of the law in November.) Another is the “Parental Rights in Education” law, dubbed “don’t say gay” by critics, which forbids teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation during grades K-3 and requires that education on those subjects be age-appropriate in older grades.
One of the bills put forward in the 2023 legislative session builds directly on the parental rights law: House Bill 1223 would expand the ban on gender and sexuality education to extend through eighth grade. That bill also says school staffers, contractors and students cannot be required to use pronouns that do not match the sex a person was assigned at birth.
“It shall be the policy of every public K-12 educational institution,” the bill states, “that a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.”
Jon Harris Maurer, public policy director for LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, said the bill will compound damage already wrought by the “Parental Rights in Education” act.
“That resulted in book banning, eroding supportive guidelines and led teachers to leave the profession,” Maurer said. “This doubles down.”
House Rep. Adam Anderson (R-District 57), who sponsored the bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
Florida legislators have introduced two other pieces of similar legislation: the near-identical Senate bill filed by Yarborough and House Bill 1069, brought by Rep. Stan McClain (R-District 27). The latter bill requires that students in grades 6-12 be taught that “sex is determined by biology and reproductive function at birth.” It also grants parents greater power to read over and object to school instructional materials, as well as limit their child’s ability to explore the school library.
McClain did respond to a request for comment.
Another bill on the table is House Bill 999, targeted to higher education and introduced by Rep. Alex Andrade (R-District 2), who did not respond to a request for comment. The bill outlaws spending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, says a professor’s tenure can come under review at any time and gives boards of trustees — typically appointed by the governor or Board of Governors — control of faculty hiring and curriculum review.
It also eliminates college majors and minors in “Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality.” It says colleges should offer general education courses that “promote the philosophical underpinnings of Western civilization and include studies of this nation’s historical documents” including the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.
The bill has a companion in the Senate, proposed by Sen. Erin Grall (R), who did not respond to a request for comment. Andrade previously told the Tampa Bay Times that his bill would ensure that institutions of higher education remain focused on legitimate fields of inquiry rather than disciplines “not based in fact.”
“It’s a complete takeover of higher education,” said Kenneth Nunn, who stepped down earlier this year from his role as professor of law at the University of Florida — in part because of the politics in the state. The “attacks” on higher education “reduce the reputation and perhaps the accreditation of the state institutions,” Nunn said.
Organizations focused on civil liberties are also objecting. PEN America, which advocates for free speech, said the bill would impose “perhaps the most draconian and censorious restrictions on public colleges and universities in the country.” The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said the bill is “laden with unconstitutional provisions hostile to freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
Adam Kissel, a visiting fellow for higher education reform at the Heritage Foundation, said there are a few easily fixed constitutional problems with the wording but praised the bill for holding “universities accountable in a few ways to the will of the people.” He added that post-tenure review is important because someone who earns that laurel at 28 may “become a dead weight” 30 years later. He said an ideological review would be inappropriate, but that if a professor has turned from intellectual pursuits to activism and is no longer producing scholarship, then that faculty member — regardless of viewpoint — merits scrutiny.
Andrade’s bill mirrors steps already taken by the DeSantis administration. In early January, the governor’s budget office mandated that all universities report the amount of money they are expending on diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Later that month, DeSantis announced a slate of reforms to higher education, including prohibitions on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
A sixth education-related bill, House Bill 1, introduced by Reps. Kaylee Tuck (R-District 83) and Susan Plasencia (R-District 37), renders all parents eligible to receive state funds to send their children to private school, stripping away a previous low-income requirement, although low-income families would still be prioritized. It comes as the school choice movement is surging nationally, with Republican-led states passing laws that grant state funds to parents who can spend the money on religious and private schools. Tuck and Plasencia did not respond to requests for comment.
Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, said this bill is the one that hurts most.
“We’re not very well funded in public education in Florida to start with,” she said. “And their answer to that is to funnel money away from public education?”
The laws are moving through committee as DeSantis continues an ongoing feud with the College Board over a new AP African American studies course, which Florida has rejected as being too “woke.” DeSantis recently said the legislature “is going to look to reevaluate” whether the state should offer any AP courses at all, or the SAT exam.
Battles over state education have also spilled into other arenas. A dispute over the Parental Rights bill lasts year ended with DeSantis pushing for a state takeover of a half-century-old special taxing district for Walt Disney World. DeSantis began excoriating Disney after the company’s former CEO criticized the “Parental Rights in Education” law.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Rep. Rene “Coach P” Plasencia (R-District 50) as a co-sponsor of House Bill 1. Rep. Susan Plasencia (R-District 37) is the co-sponsor of the bill. This article has been corrected.