Teachers say political struggles over race, LGBTQ issues are driving them out of Florida classrooms

Florida’s new restrictions on discussions of race, diversity and LGBTQ issues in classrooms have some teachers and school districts worried that partisan politics is seeping into schools. Critics of these new policies say they are contributing to a massive increase in teacher vacancies.

Megan Grant taught English at Wakulla High School until the end of 2021. She says she left after being placed on leave while the district investigated her for allegedly teaching critical race theory. According to Grant, a white student said one of his assignments made him feel uncomfortable.

“Basically them [the school district] I was trying to see if I was teaching critical race theory,” she said. “When they told me I laughed because, again, I was teaching 10th grade, not doing literary theory with 10th graders. [I was] just trying to teach them the tone and mood. This is a poem I have taught several times.”

The poem that got Grant in trouble was “on the subway”, which talks about white privilege.

The State Board of Education banned the teaching of critical race theory in June 2021. The legislature strengthened that ban with a new law this year. CRT, as it is called, is an academic framework that examines how institutions perpetuate racism. It is usually taught in graduate programs, but has become an issue for some who believe that any discussion of race and racism is divisive.

Grant says school officials questioned her about content related to race and gender.
“Those seemed to be the key words,” he said. “They asked me, ‘Well, what’s this about?’ Well, we read this poem that is about racial profiling. We read this poem about a girl who grew up. But because it was a girl, like in terms of gender, it seems like it was a trigger.”

Grant says that while the school district did not find that she was teaching CRT, she was no longer allowed to create her own lesson plans. He now teaches in the Leon County School District. Wakulla school officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Grant’s experience in Wakulla came before a new law passed earlier this year prohibits teaching topics related to race and gender that could make a group of people feel guilty or ashamed about actions taken in the past by other members of this group.

Another recently enacted law prohibits discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school. It also requires parents to be informed of their children’s requests to use different pronouns.

“Well, there’s no question that a lot of what’s going on right now is again based on confusion and chaos,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. .

“And secondly, it’s having a chilling effect on what’s being said and taught in schools.”

The new parental rights law, along with the anti-CRT law and the lack of guidance from the Florida Department of Education, means that each of Florida’s school districts will set their own policies. Several Florida school boards are being sued to change their LGBTQ guidelines and remove similar material from their libraries and classrooms in response. Others have tagged books warning of potentially controversial topics, and some, like Leon, are calling for revisions to teachers’ class materials.

Leon County School District Superintendent Rocky Hanna says teachers are worried they could be sued for saying the wrong thing.

“It’s scaring our teachers now,” he said. “They don’t know what they can say, what they can’t say. If I make a kid feel bad, are they going to sue me? Am I protected if they sue me? I don’t make a lot of money. “They’re coming after my family? We already have a shortage of teachers. We have a teacher shortage crisis. This will only exacerbate this situation.”

Spar says the pressure on teachers is increasing vacancies across the state. There are more than 9,000 vacant teaching and support positions for the next school year. Spar blames the political agenda he says Gov. Ron DeSantis has injected into the public school system.

“This constant degradation of the profession, and again when the governor goes and claims that teachers are teaching kids to hate cops, which is not true,” he said. “Or teachers are teaching sex education in K-3, which isn’t. true. And he knows it, right? And when he goes around the state saying teachers are teaching kids to hate white people, it’s not true. And the governor knows it.”

The governor says he is trying to protect children and parents who may not agree with what he sees as a so-called “WOKE” ideology regarding race and gender.

“We’re not going to have any first graders being told that ‘Yeah, your parents named you Johnny.’ You were born a boy, but maybe you really are a girl,” she said.

In the meantime, Grant says she’s happy to work in the Leon County School District. But she worries about the impact the new restrictions on race, gender and sexual identity will have on her former students when they venture beyond the county’s borders.

“I assume students will leave Walkula eventually, even if it’s like visiting them and how they’re going to be with other people if they can’t handle reading about other people,” he said.

Adding to fears among teachers is an impending showdown between state and federal law. The Florida Department of Education is telling local districts to ignore federal guidelines that require schools to allow children to play on sports teams that align with their gender identity. The agency also says districts must not let students use bathrooms that match their gender identity.

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