Gainesville Sun // Carl Ramey
Another year, another entirely predictable Florida legislative session: last-minute, back-room deal making, leading to more bad news for public schools.
Indeed, if it’s not fervently advancing the agenda of the National Rifle Association, the most predictable behavior of Tallahassee lawmakers is their relentless favoring of privately run charter schools (over conventional public schools). The latest assault is a requirement that public school districts share property tax revenue with charter schools. Another is a new program called “Schools of Hope,” allowing charter operators to tap into a $140 million fund to open new schools in the same general neighborhood of underperforming public schools.
Make no mistake: This is the most contentious, consequential topic in American education today. Right now, however, let me raise two ancillary topics — as a way of illustrating how, apart from the broader assault, it’s also possible to eat away at the core of public education by targeted, partisan nibbling around the edges.
As evidence, I proffer two laws attracting less attention, but also enacted this year. One grants students heightened flexibility to organize prayer groups, religious clubs and other religious gatherings before, during and after the school day; the other grants all Florida residents (not just parents) a new right to challenge what’s taught in science and other classrooms.
Although the religious right likes to claim that the Supreme Court has declared public schools to be “religion-free zones,” the claim is totally baseless. In Florida, and elsewhere, students have long had the right to pray individually or in groups, to openly discuss religious views with willing peers, and to utilize available school facilities in the same way as secular groups.
The problem with the “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act” is not just that it largely confirms what’s already legal; it takes a dangerous step beyond. Instead of respecting the time-honored separation of church and state (school), the act purposely integrates more church into school. In fact, its principal effect is to actually encourage overt religious expression in every conceivable context of the school experience.
Especially troublesome is how it seems to handcuff teachers and directly implicate all “school personnel.” For example, teachers could, arguably, be guilty of discrimination if, before awarding a passing grade, they insisted on revisions to a written assignment where the student relied solely on religious belief to deny or debunk a demonstrable historic event (on which the assignment was based).
Teachers and administrators in public schools are “state” actors, and shouldn’t encourage or be seen as endorsing any particular religious activity. Yet, instead of upholding such neutrality, this new law specifically authorizes school “personnel” (teachers, principals and staff) to participate in “religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students …” That’s a bridge too far.
Equally problematic are the amendments enacted this year to Florida’s education code; specifically, the section that permits challenges to “instructional materials” used by public schools. Previously, challenges were limited to parents with children in the school district. Now, any resident of the county with an axe to grind can challenge the appropriateness of anything (textbooks, videos, software, etc.) having “intellectual content” and used as a “major tool” for instruction.
In short, a limited, parent-centric complaint procedure has been turned into an open-ended, highly accessible platform for sectarian pressure groups — more interested in advancing a particular belief than how certain material might impact a particular child. It opens up the possibility of coordinated campaigns by groups seeking to ban material deemed objectionable on religious or political grounds (such as evolution and global warming).
Already, Florida Citizens Alliance (a leading group behind these measures) has made it clear that it intends to promote its doctrinaire agenda by conflating the new religious “discrimination” law with the expanded provision for challenging “instructional materials.” If you have doubts, just check the group’s website.
It’s bad enough that certain narrow, vested interests have succeeded in convincing compliant legislators to meddle in the inherently diverse nature of public schools. What’s worse, for a nation increasingly separated along partisan lines, is that they’ve made public education a new battleground for divisive identity politics.