Florida’s School Choice Achievements in Jeopardy as Anti-Woke Classroom Rules Emerge

Any discussion of Florida’s education system is incomplete without mentioning this: Nearly 50 percent of the state’s K-12 students attend a school other than the one in their neighborhood or geographically closest to them. That’s about 1.6 million students, according to 2021–22 data from Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that encourages school choice and funds scholarships for Florida students. School choice in Florida doesn’t just mean attending private schools (which over 170,000 students do), attending publicly funded but privately operated charter schools (which over 360,000 students do), or homeschooling (which over 150,000 students do). The state has a strong open enrollment system, mandated by law, that gives parents wide permission to shift their children to other public schools to take advantage of academic, athletic, or extracurricular opportunities they can’t get from their otherwise-assigned public school. Over 262,000 K-12 students in Florida take advantage of this opportunity to simply attend a different public school, and over 250,000 other students participate in specialty or magnet programs within the public school system. Educational freedom is going to expand even more in the state thanks to House Bill 1, which was signed in March. The bill established universal Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) that parents can use to fund alternative schooling choices. Florida’s ESAs allow parents to withdraw a child from the public schooling system and get a deposit of about $8,700 from the state in a special account used for education. That money represents the state’s per-pupil spending on that child, allowing parents to direct that money to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online learning costs, and other select education-related needs. Florida had already been permitting special ESAs for students with special education needs; H.B. 1 expands the program’s scope to all families. As of early October, Florida is the sixth state offering universal ESAs (the others being Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Utah, and West Virginia). At the start of the school year, an estimated 407,000 students were enrolled in the state’s two ESA programs or one of two other tax-credit scholarship programs. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis bragged about the scope of participation in Florida’s school choice options, saying in August, “I am proud of the work we have done so far, but we’re far from done—we will continue to empower parents and expand opportunities so that our students receive the best possible education.” *** DeSantis and state Republicans’ overall support for school choice makes for a sharp contrast with their one-size-fits-all approach to teaching race, gender, and sexuality. “Parents….should be protected from schools using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old,” DeSantis said in March 2022, when he signed H.B. 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, into law. Colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, it forbids any classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students from kindergarten through third grade. That part of the law is what DeSantis and H.B. 1557 defenders want to draw the most attention to, and it probably seems eminently reasonable to many people.
But another part of the law forbids any classroom instruction “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards” in all grades—giving the state’s Board of Education wide latitude to decide what can and cannot be discussed in every classroom. In April 2023, the board did exactly what the law’s critics feared: It banned all classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity across all grades unless it was required as part of state education standards or as part of a health instruction class that parents could opt their students out of. A follow-up bill, H.B. 1069, passed in May, expanded the reach of H.B. 1557 to charter schools—schools that were explicitly created as alternatives to traditional public schools. Parents who want their children taught about these topics would need to turn either to private schools or to homeschooling. Florida’s education standards did call for classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in high school psychology classes, where they’re clearly relevant topics. But in July, the state’s Department of Education removed those standards, seemingly forbidding high school psychology teachers from teaching the subjects. In August, the College Board, the nonprofit that helps coordinate programs and test students for Advanced Placement (A.P.) classes, warned that Florida students might not get college credit for A.P. psychology classes if these subjects were removed from the state’s curriculum, noting that these topics had been part of the class for 30 years. Immediately after that warning was issued, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Díaz Jr. sent a letter to the College Board assuring that the class “can be taught in its entirety in a manner that is age and developmentally appropriate and the course remains listed in our course catalog.” This seems to have satisfied the College Board. “We hope that Florida teachers are able to teach the full course, including content on gender and sexual orientation, without fear of punishment in the upcoming school year,” a spokesperson says.
The state’s Department of Education has put out guidance to school districts that the law doesn’t require schools to remove library books. But H.B. 1069 creates a legal framework for parents to demand books be removed from schools that mandates schools comply first and then investigate the objection. In October, the Florida Freedom to Read Project calculated there had been at least 4,000 unique attempts in the state to remove books from state schools since October 2021. These dynamics, while being presented by politicians and conservative proponents as supporting “parents’ rights” to decide how their children are educated, in reality give a small group of people wide authority to attempt to censor educational materials regardless of the desires of local parents and students. “School choice is a way to sidestep the politics of the classroom altogether,” Reason Foundation’s Christian Barnard notes. But Florida reminds us that even in a strong school choice system, there’s still a risk of politicians pushing their ideas into the classroom.