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Book ban in Florida's public schools rankles many

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Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
Ted Shaffrey/AP

Students in a number of public schools in Florida began the academic year finding books on the shelves covered — and other books banned outright — under a new state law calling for their review.

House Bill 1467, which became law in July, requires public schools to provide age-appropriate books. A qualified school media specialist — trained by the state — must give their approval. To date, more than 50 books have been banned from classrooms and school libraries by the state of Florida.

“As a parent, I should be able to have my kid read any book that I think is appropriate at school," said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union. “But there is someone saying those books aren't allowed in school."

Spar is along with other parents who believe this is a case of government overreach.

“So, now my kid doesn't have the opportunity to read a book that they may connect to, that they may be excited about and that I would be okay with them reading,” he said. “I don't have that choice anymore as a parent, because the government's coming in saying that book is not allowed anymore.”

Spar likens that to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decision to quash an Advanced Placement African American studies course, claiming it had what he called a “left-wing bias” that is not a part of the already-mandated program to teach African-American history.

“This course on Black history — what's one of the lessons about? ‘Queer Theory,” said the governor. “That's the wrong side of the line for Florida standards. When you try to use Black history to shoehorn in Queer Theory, you are clearly trying to use that for political purposes.”

The book ban also hits a number of books normally not associated with controversial ideas and concepts such as arithmetic and mathematics.

“One of the criticisms was the parents couldn't help their kids with the math homework,” DeSantis said. “First, it doesn't meet the standards, but second, math is about getting the right answer. It's not about how you feel about the problem or to introduce some of these other things. There's a right answer and there's a wrong answer.”

Meanwhile the College Board, on the first day of Black History Month, announced that they were acceding to DeSantis’ protest. The new curriculum deletes the names of several Black writers, scholars and leaders associated with Black feminism, LGBTQ issues and critical race theory.

That’s upsetting to some parents, including Spar, who believes this is government overreach.

“And we're seeing this throughout the panhandle in different parts of Florida, where they're literally telling teachers, box up all the books in the school that the school didn't buy,” he said. “And in some classrooms, that's like 90, 95% of the books they have in the classroom. That's really limiting the learning for our students.”

Displaying or giving students a disallowed book, is a third-degree felony. A conviction is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Some believe that in itself could drive away potential teachers.

“What concerns me more, is there's already a teacher shortage. And if you're going to have teachers operate under a cloud of fear, it's certainly not going to encourage anyone to go into the field,” said David Godwin, an educator and president of Santa Rosa County Professional Educators.

He adds that one problem is some of those protesting the books in a school district — don’t have any kids in school.

“You know, these people [are] going to the school board meetings. There needs to be a little bit of context. If it's an 18-year-old that's taken an [Advanced Placement] literature course, that student's probably old enough for that material, but it may not be available for a 10- or 11-year-old.”

The key, contends Godwin, is local control of the 67 school districts, just as the Florida Constitution spells it out.

“The school board shall operate, control and supervise all public schools within the school district,” said Godwin, quoting a line in the constitution. “You have an elected school board. You have an elected superintendent. I think they need to make most of the decisions for their school districts, along with community input. So what might be good in Santa Rosa County may not be good in, say, Miami Dade County.”

Calls to the teachers unions in Escambia and Okaloosa Counties, seeking interviews for this story, were not returned.
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Dave Dunwoody
Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.