Bills targeting ‘wokeness’ and FSA testing advance, Broward meeting redo, book challenges, and more

Targeting “wokeness”: School or workplace discussions that make students or workers feel guilty about their race, gender and sex are the targets of a bill that was approved along party lines Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee. Gov. Ron DeSantis pitched the concept in his December proposal for a “Stop WOKE Act” that would put a halt to the “wokeness” of teaching critical race theory in schools or using it for corporate training. House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said the bill would ensure that “Florida’s workplaces and schools are places where we can have healthy dialogues about race or diversity without losing sight that we are all, first and foremost, unique individuals.” Critics contend the bill is politically driven and would lead to a flurry of lawsuits from people who are “triggered” by discussions of race, gender and sex. Politico Florida. News Service of Florida. Florida Phoenix. Florida Politics. WFSU.

Bill to change testing: A bill that would replace the state’s Florida Standards Assessments with a program periodically measuring the progress of students was approved Wednesday by the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee. State Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, the bill’s sponsor, said the goal is to spend less time on testing and more on instruction. “We feel that the potential is here for the implementation of progress monitoring and a system that will be game changing for our teachers, for our students and for our parents,” Diaz said. Florida Politics. News Service of Florida.

Around the state: Broward County’s school board will redo the meeting in which it picked four finalists for the superintendent’s job over concerns about the legality of the process, a Polk County conservative political group called County Citizens Defending Freedom wants the school district to ban 16 books from school libraries because it believes the books are pornographic, a federal judge has denied a request from the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty for a temporary injunction against the Brevard school board’s policy that places restrictions on public comments made at board meetings, absences of Orange County students whose parents keep them home from school because of coronavirus virus concerns will no longer be excused, a report concludes that black mold and radon found in a Florida State University building could have contributed to cancer diagnoses of eight faculty and graduate assistants since 2012, and the Pinellas and Gadsden school districts each name their teacher of the year. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: Tuesday’s school board meeting, in which four finalists for the superintendent’s job were chosen, will be restaged Feb. 1 after questions were raised about the legality of how the voting was handled. School board members each picked their top three to five candidates by “secret ballot.” The number of votes each candidate received was announced during the meeting, but without the breakdown of how each board member voted. That was released Wednesday, after it was requested by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Marylin Batista, the board’s interim general counsel, decided to hold the meeting again “out of an abundance of caution in the event anyone challenged it,” said board member Debbi Hixon. “Our general counsel said it was not a violation, but if it was challenged we could have to do it over again, so better just to redo it now.” The delay could affect the board’s intention to select a superintendent Feb. 9. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough: A new elementary charter school that focuses on project-based learning is opening in Temple Terrace next fall. Dr. Kiran C. Patel Elementary bears the name of a local philanthropist who wants to provide a private school-like setting for low and middle income families who can’t afford a private education for their children. Bay News 9. A former band director at Steinbrenner High School, Jason Phillip Allgair, pleaded guilty Wednesday to having a sexual relationship with an underage student. Allgair, 37, was sentenced to four years in prison and 10 years probation as a sex offender. The student, who was 17 when the crimes took place between October 2017 and May 2018, testified at the sentencing that the relationship “scarred my body, my soul, my spirit and my mind.” Patch. WFTS.

Orange: Absences of students whose parents keep them home from school because of coronavirus virus concerns will no longer be excused, school district officials announced this week. They said any parents who want to keep their children home can enroll them as being home-schooled. The new policy begins Monday. WKMG.

Palm Beach: School district officials are counting on the new “Test to Know” COVID-19 testing program to cut down on soaring absenteeism rates among students and employees. About a third of the district’s 180 or so schools are offering daily tests to students for up to five days after being exposed to someone with COVID. Students who test negative can go to class, while those who test positive are sent home to quarantine. Palm Beach Post. Two programs that help students in district schools with mental health issues are being bolstered with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. Keith Oswald, the district’s chief of equity and wellness, said the money will allow the programs to expand to help thousands more students at more than a dozen additional schools. Palm Beach Post.

Polk: The conservative political group County Citizens Defending Freedom is calling on the school district to ban 16 books from school libraries, claiming they are pornographic. Among the 16 are The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult, and Beloved and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. The books won’t be available for checkout while a committee consisting of educators, parents and community members reviews the complaint. Lakeland Ledger.

Pinellas: Eileen Iacobucci, a 65-year-old visual arts teacher at East Lake High School, has been chosen as the school district’s teacher of the year. Iacobucci and nine other finalists were announced earlier this week. Tampa Bay Times.

Lee, Collier: Collier high schools posted their highest graduation rate ever in 2021, improving from 92.2 percent to 92.6 percent, according to Florida Department of Education data released earlier this month. Lee schools’ rate dipped after five consecutive years of improvement, falling from 88.5 percent in 2020 to 85.1 percent last spring. Fort Myers News-Press. The city of Cape Coral is increasing taxes on electricity rates to help pay off the debt on its charter school buildings. Each household will pay about $27 more a year, said Cape Coral spokeswoman Melissa Mickey. WINK.

Brevard: A federal judge has denied a request from the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty for a temporary injunction against the school board’s policy that places restrictions on public comments made at board meetings. Judge Roy Dalton said the request for the injunction was not justified since Moms for Liberty was unlikely to win the lawsuit. Florida Today. Satellite Beach police have closed the case without finding the person who made a fake child abuse claim last year against school board member Jennifer Jenkins. Jenkins said the claim was part of an organized campaign of harassment against her and her family because she supported the school district’s face mask mandate for students. Florida Today.

Manatee: District school officials now have three COVID-19 testing sites opened, and are urging parents to have their children tested and keep them at home if they have symptoms. “Our primary mitigation strategy is to make sure people who are symptomatic stay home,” said Mike Barber, the district’s director of communications. “That helps hold down the spread … I know our parents, I know our employees are sick of getting the messages, but we feel like we have to keep driving it home.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: School board member Don Browning is urging his colleagues to spend more time publicly discussing issues that have been placed under the consent agenda and passed in bulk at board meetings. He said the “general idea is that major issues, especially those that are hundreds of thousands of dollars,” be discussed openly at meetings and not just at workshop sessions. He pointed to the $2.8 million in federal COVID relief aid the district is receiving. “This is way too big to fit under the carpet. In my private life, every time I see an item go under C (consent), or get a C put on it, I say that’s under the carpet.” The consent agenda “should be used for the purchase of shoelaces, or something, you know, mundane items.” Ocala Star-Banner.

Leon: Students, school choice advocates and several prominent legislators rallied Wednesday in the Capitol Courtyard to support the continuing expansion of school choice. “We cannot rest on our laurels on what we’ve done … we have to continue to push forward until every single child in this state has the opportunity to choose the best educational setting, not for the collective, not for the system, not for the institution, but for each and every one of our individual children,” said state Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. The rally was part of a celebration of National School Choice Week. Tallahassee Democrat. Bay News 9.

Santa Rosa: Superintendent Karen Barber is asking the Florida Department of Education for permission to use federal coronavirus relief aid to hire 25 additional school counselors. The additional counselors would help students “identify the courses that they need (to graduate) and providing them with information about dual enrollment and advanced placement courses and providing them with opportunities to participate in a career academy,” Barber said. Pensacola News Journal.

Gadsden: Sonja Wilson-Lewis, a reading coach at West Gadsden Middle School, has been selected as the district’s teacher of the year. WCTV.

Colleges and universities: Black mold and radon found in a Florida State University building could have contributed to cancer diagnoses of eight faculty and graduate assistants since 2012, according to a report compiled by four faculty members and sent to new president Richard McCullough last Friday. Florida Politics. Following the resignation of Florida International University president Mark Rosenberg and the appointment of an interim president, the school’s faculty senate has voted to recommend that provost Kenneth Furton be kept on even though he was supposed to leave his post March 1. Miami Herald. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach is receiving a nearly $3.9 million National Science Foundation grant to help recruit more students for the school’s undergraduate and graduate programs in aviation and aerospace cybersecurity. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Pensacola State College is getting two new trucks for the school’s truck driving training facility being built in Milton. The training facility is expected to open in the fall. Pensacola News Journal.

Opinions on schools: At a time when more should be done to hire and keep good schoolteachers, the  Legislature seems fixated on making the work of educating the state’s 2.7 million public school students ever more onerous and pushing teachers into another line of work. Palm Beach Post. Not satisfied with the fact of life that young people question their sexuality and still turn out to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, conservatives in the Legislature now hope they can legislate the community back into obscurity in public schools. What’s truly dangerous is that Republican state legislators are diverting Floridians’ attention from real issues in their self-righteous attempt to save students from faux enemies. Miami Herald. School choice is finally gaining traction in a way we’ve never seen before. I feel that this is the civil-rights issue of our time. Bill Oberndorf, Education Next. The University of Florida could not have deserved or suffered a greater embarrassment than the 74-page rebuke from U.S. District Judge Mark Walker over its attempts to bar professors from contradicting the ruling political party in this state. Sun Sentinel.

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BY NextSteps staff