When Yvette Benarroch, a leader in the conservative Moms for Liberty chapter in Collier County, Florida, addressed the state’s Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, she exuded gratitude.
“Thank you for carrying out the governor’s parental rights agenda,” she said with a smile.
The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed a law last year saying the board, a division of the state’s Department of Education, would need to approve a training program for public schools in the state. Training would be mandatory for all media specialists, who are in charge of finding and approving educational resources, and for teachers who have books in their classrooms.
Beyond saying that schools needed to be transparent about why they had selected instructional materials, the law didn’t outline what that training should look like, and state education officials convened a working group — made up largely of parents, educators and school staff, including some people who have previously tried to ban books from schools — to draft the new training.
The final training, which the Board of Education approved this week, focuses on shielding kids from books about racial justice and books with LGBTQ themes. This made many conservatives happy, and it was a victory for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential contender who has highlighted so-called parental rights and “anti-wokeness” in his political platform. He has sought to ax workplace diversity initiatives (an effort that was thwarted by a federal judge), has appointed conservatives to the board of a progressive college, pushed right-wing higher education officials to ban discussion of “critical race theory” and has championed the “Don’t Say Gay” law that prohibits public school teachers from talking about sexual orientation or gender identity.
His success in transforming Florida public schools into breeding grounds for far-right ideas wouldn’t be possible without the help of Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit organization that advocates for parents’ rights — a term that has become synonymous with pushing conservative ideology in public schools. Moms for Liberty has been on a book-banning crusade since its inception, and at least two of the working group members on the media specialist training belonged to Florida chapters.
This shift in Florida has taken place as public libraries and schools have been under attack around the U.S. Right-wing culture warriors have in particular pushed for institutions to ban books with LGBTQ themes, claiming they are inherently pornographic and that school librarians who don’t want to remove them from shelves are trying to abuse or “groom” children.
“The attacks are more than just curating books that are a little too mature for young kids,” said Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a nonprofit focused on fighting book bans and censorship. “They’re actually targeting the lived experiences of people who aren’t white, Christian, cis or straight.”
New Guidance Sparks Fear
The new training is supposed to pertain only to instructional materials. But because school librarians are also media specialists, some districts have begun citing the guidance — even before the final training was approved — as justification for removing books from their libraries.
“It’s just another way for the far right to say that you can’t trust public schools to deliver an education to your children,” Ferrell said.
The Florida Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.
The new training, which can be found on the Florida Department of Education’s website, includes 40 slides and a 52-minute video. The beginning of the training is dedicated to the subject of pornography and states that no one may provide minors with sexually explicit or other harmful material unless it has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”
Violating the state statute on providing harmful materials would be considered a felony, the training says. But it does not provide examples of works that meet this definition, and the vague language has left some educators worried that they could be found guilty of a crime if they don’t censor books that conservatives claim are harmful.
“I see that some librarians self-censor because they’re afraid of getting in trouble, and that should not be a consideration as far as choosing books for our students,” Tania Rodriguez, a media specialist in Osceola County, told WFTV 9 in Orlando.
The training also tells media specialists to “avoid” materials that may lead to student indoctrination. It does not provide a definition of what could be considered indoctrination or include any examples of material that could encourage it.
Educators must allow anyone living in their district to challenge materials in schools, according to the training. It does not say if this includes library books or applies only to reading material in classrooms. The training also says media specialists should also check to see if a book has been removed or restricted in any other districts, then “carefully consider” whether to approve it for their own.
“It’s very frustrating because all of this is unfounded,” said Kathleen Daniels, the president of the Florida Association for Media Education. “There is no book in the Florida schools that can be considered porn.”
‘13,000 More To Go’
Many school board meetings across the country have made headlines in the past year for growing heated, with residents pushing back against right-wing school policies and book-banning attempts. But in Florida this week, almost all of the public comments were in support of the new rule.
If anything, some people were worried the training didn’t go far enough.
Many speakers took umbrage with the language saying books with sexually explicit language may be used as long as they have educational value.
“Please tighten the language,” parent Kathleen Murray said, claiming the guidance contained a loophole that could allow students to read books that explain “how to conduct homosexual activities on each other.”
Bruce Friedman, president of the Florida chapter of No Left Turn in Education, a conservative organization that fights for parental rights, is known in Clay County for repeatedly attempting to get his school district to ban books. He said Wednesday that the new training guidelines would allow him to continue his quest.
“I have challenged 1,800 books,” he said. “I have 13,000 more to go.”
Parents can already restrict their children from reading any book they don’t like — in fact, all districts in Florida offer a way for parents to prevent their children from checking out any book they deem inappropriate.
“We support parents’ rights to have a guiding hand in their children’s education,” Daniels said. “But you can’t dictate what other children can do.”
Conservatives claim the crackdowns on educational resources are meant to protect kids. But, Daniels said, it does children a disservice to keep them away from certain books and not expose them to different ideas.
“It’s frustrating,” she said, “because it’s the students who are getting the short end of the stick.”