Lawmakers propose many changes to K-12 education. Here is what you need to know

·9 min read

It is no secret that Florida lawmakers have long tried to overhaul the way local school districts operate.

But as schools increasingly become a battleground in American politics and Gov. Ron DeSantis eyes a potential presidential bid, an emboldened Republican super majority in the Legislature is renewing efforts to make changes to the state’s K-12 education system and the local authorities that oversee it.

From shortening school board term limits and making school board races partisan to imposing further restrictions on teachers’ unions and classroom instruction, lawmakers appear poised to pass legislation that would impact thousands of people in Florida public schools.

“It’s a continuation of what we have been seeing, but I think it is on steroids this year,” said Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

Midway through the 60-day session, nearly a dozen measures — big and small — are moving in the Legislature. Taking this group of bills together, many have raised questions about whether state leaders are trying to destabilize confidence in the state’s public school system. Supporters, on the other hand, suggest the efforts will empower parents and improve children’s education.

Here is what is moving through the Legislature with one month left go:

School boards

Partisan school boards: Lawmakers are fast-tracking proposals that would ask voters on the 2024 ballot whether they want to make local board races partisan. The House and Senate are poised to approve the proposal, which would allow a constitutional amendment to go on the ballot. Supporters saying the proposal is about “transparency” while opponents say it is an attempt to politicize school boards. If the Legislature and voters approve the measure, school board candidates could run with party affiliations in 2026.

DeSantis has indicated that he wants partisan school board elections and that he plans to have a heavy hand in those races in 2024, when he is also expected to be a candidate for the Republican nomination for president.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media during a press conference at Christopher Columbus High School on Monday, March 27, 2023, in Miami, Fla. The press conference was held to announce DeSantis’s signing of a private school voucher expansion, HB1, which allows more Florida school children become eligible for taxpayer-funded school vouchers.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis answers questions from the media during a press conference at Christopher Columbus High School on Monday, March 27, 2023, in Miami, Fla. The press conference was held to announce DeSantis’s signing of a private school voucher expansion, HB1, which allows more Florida school children become eligible for taxpayer-funded school vouchers.

Term limits: School board members could see four years shaved off their 12-year maximum terms under a proposal that has been approved by the House and that is making the rounds in the Senate. The Senate bill, however, would also impose eight-year term limits for county commissioners, a difference that remains up for negotiation in the second half of the legislative session.

Last year, the Legislature and DeSantis set 12-year-limits on the terms of school board members, even as legal experts suggested the Legislature and governor might not have the authority to restrict length of service for school board members, whose posts are established in the state Constitution.

Residency flexibility: Candidates for school boards would no longer have to reside in the district they want to represent while running for office. Instead, they would be required to live in the district by the time they assume office. The pitch is being made in identical proposals in the House and Senate.

Book challenges: Sweeping legislation moving in the House and Senate would make it easier for people to object to instructional materials and library books. The proposals would make objection forms more accessible to the public, and would require books and materials to be removed within five school days and “remain unavailable until the objection is resolved.” Any county resident, not just parents of a child in school, would be able to lodge an objection.

Sex education books: School board members would no longer have the power to adopt instructional materials used to teach students about reproductive health or any disease, including HIV and AIDS. Instead, bills moving in the House and Senate, would give that authority solely to the Department of Education, which reports to the governor.

The Miami-Dade school board holds a meeting after swearing in the newly appointed member, Maria Bosque-Blanco, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in downtown Miami.
The Miami-Dade school board holds a meeting after swearing in the newly appointed member, Maria Bosque-Blanco, on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in downtown Miami.

More state oversight: The Department of Education would be allowed to investigate “allegations or reports of suspected violations of a student’s, parent’s or teacher’s rights,” under a proposal that is ready for the Senate floor. The House has not adopted the same language yet.

Business dealings: School districts would be restricted from considering “social, political or ideological” interests when contracting and purchasing commodities or services, under a broad measure that takes aim at environmental- and social-related investing in Florida. Both the House and Senate have fast-tracked the proposal, which is backed by DeSantis.

Teachers

Unions targeted: The Senate has passed a bill that would place new restrictions on public-employee unions — such as teachers unions. It would prevent dues from being deducted from workers’ paychecks and would reset the threshold for how many eligible employees need to be dues-paying union members, and if the number is less than 60%, unions would have to be re-certified as bargaining agents.

The Florida Education Association, the largest union in the state, said the bill was about “revenge,” as teachers unions played a key role in supporting DeSantis’ Democratic gubernatorial opponent, Charlie Crist, and his running mate, Karla Hernández-Mats, who is the head of United Teachers of Dade.

Easing up on certifications: DeSantis has signed into law a measure that will make it easier for teachers to get certifications by creating additional methods to demonstrate the expertise required to be certified. For example, the requirement of mastery of general knowledge will be waived for an individual who has been provided three years of support and instruction and who has been rated effective or highly effective for each of the previous three years.

Classroom instruction

Social media lessons: Schools would be required to teach students in graded 6 through 12 about the social, emotional and physical effects of using social media, including the potential negative effects it might have on mental health and how it can manipulate behavior through the distribution of disinformation.

Under the proposal, which is ready for the Senate floor, districts would bar students from accessing social media when using the Internet provided by the district unless it is for educational purposes and they are directed to do so by their teacher. A similar bill is ready for a vote in the House.

Cell phone limits: The same bill that would teach kids about social media would also crack down on cell phone use in the classroom. If approved by the Legislature, state law would allow teachers to withhold a student’s cell phone during instructional time and tell students to not use their cellphones during class time unless it is used “solely for educational purposes and directed by his or her teacher.”

Sexual orientation, gender identity lessons: A proposal that would bar instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity from prekindergarten through eighth grade, expanding a controversial 2022 Parental Rights in Education law, that critics dubbed “don’t say gay.” The bill would also expand grow the reach of the law, as it would apply not just to traditional public schools but charter schools, too. The proposal is being fast-tracked in the Senate and House.

Pronouns targeted: School employees would not be allowed to call students by pronouns that differ from those given to them at birth — even in cases when a parent is OK with it. The idea is moving forward in proposed legislation in the House and Senate that would also require every public K-12 school to have a policy that says it is “false” to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to their assigned sex, which under the law would be defined as an “immutable, or unchanging, biological trait.”

African-American history: Florida law requires that K-12 schools teach Black history and that courses meet certain requirements. But only 11 of Florida’s 67 county school districts have developed plans for providing the courses, training teachers and integrating the instruction in their required coursework.

Under a proposal advancing in the House, each school district would be required to annually certify and provide evidence to the department, in a manner prescribed by the department, that instruction requirements are being met. The bill remains on its first committee stop in the Senate.

Other issues

School vouchers for all: School-aged children will soon be eligible for vouchers — regardless of economic background, under legislation that has been approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

The bill, among other things, establishes education savings accounts that allow recipients to spend about $8,000 in voucher funds beyond private-school tuition, such as for tutoring and exam fees, and expands eligibility for current scholarships to any K-12 student who is a Florida resident.

Policing bathrooms: Republicans have introduced legislation that would make it a misdemeanor offense for someone over the age of 18 to use certain bathrooms that don’t align with their sex at birth, including in schools. And local school districts would be required to craft code of conduct rules to discipline minor students who do the same.

The bills are moving through the committee process in the House and Senate.

School start times: High school students could get more sleep under legislation that has been approved by the House and is moving in the Senate. Lawmakers are proposing middle schools begin classes no earlier than 8 a.m., and high schools no earlier than 8:30 a.m. If approved, the change would be effective in July 2026, to give schools and families time to prepare.

In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, middle schools currently start at 9:10 a.m. and 9:15 a.m., respectively.

Transportation changes: Lawmakers are considering giving district school boards more flexibility on figuring out students’ transportation to and from school. A bill moving in the House and Senate would remove the blanket requirement that all regular transportation should occur on school buses and would authorize school boards to contract with private entities to provide transportation services to students.

Work-based opportunities: School boards would be required to ensure that each student enrolled in grades 9 through 12 has access to at least one work-based learning opportunity under legislative proposals moving in both chambers. DeSantis has made workforce education a top priority.

Getting the GED: A bill approved by the Florida House, and moving in the Senate, would make it easier for students younger than 18 to take the General Education Development (GED) exam.

The bill would bar school districts from requiring a student who is at least 16 to take a course prior to sitting for the GED exam, unless the student failed to get a passing score on the GED Ready practice test.

Miami Herald reporter Sommer Brugal contributed to this report from Miami and Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report from Tampa.