On March 28, 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida House Bill 1557, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay Bill.” This piece of legislation represents the latest example of politicians using the guise of parental rights in education to further their conservative political agendas.
Florida House Bill 1557 takes three key steps to protect parental power. Firstly, the bill ensures that parents are notified of the healthcare services offered at their child’s school and grants parents the right to decline any of the services. Secondly, the bill requires parental permission before schools can administer any questionnaires or health screenings to K-3 students. Most notably, however, the bill prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in K-3rd grades guided by the notion that this instruction is “not age-appropriate for students.” This clause is how the “Don’t Say Gay bill” earned its name.
As numerous opinion columns have pointed out, this legislation is inappropriately vague. The seven-page bill does not define any of its key terms, rendering schools unsure of what “instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation” means. When a teacher asks students to draw pictures of their family, what would a student with homosexual parents do? Should their education be compromised simply by merit of a familial structure that Governor DeSantis deems socially unacceptable?
If this bill were truly intended to protect parental rights in education, it would have clearly enumerated what those rights are in regards to gender identity or sexual orientation instruction. Furthermore, the decision to ban this type of learning from only grades K-3 highlights another flaw in this bill. What makes a fourth-grader developmentally mature enough to learn about these topics that they were not capable of in third grade? The vague and arbitrary decisions integrated into this bill clearly demonstrate that protecting parental rights is merely a guise to promote conservative social values through education.
Florida is not the first state to use the protection of parental rights in education to censor topics about race, gender, or sexuality. In his gubernatorial campaign, Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin also promoted a conservative agenda through the guise of parental rights. During Covid, he mandated that schools could not require masks on behalf of protecting parental rights. He has a similar provision about banning critical race theory under the same reasoning.
This movement is spreading across the country. Earlier this month, Ohio introduced a similar bill called House Bill 616. This bill extends even further than the Florida bill by banning not only subjects related to sexual orientation and identity in K-3 grades, but also prohibiting critical race theory and the 1619 project. Although this bill has not yet passed, it is illustrative of a larger social movement to promote conservative values through education disguised as a protection of parental rights.
A central argument in favor of banning these topics from elementary classrooms declares that children are not developmentally ready to learn about “sexuality and woke gender ideology.” However, a young age is exactly the time when children should be exposed to these subjects. It is important to note that topics related to sexual and gender identity are not central parts of existing K-3 curricula, and there is little support to change this. However, banning any mention of these topics can have negative repercussions on future generations of voters.
Neuroscience studies have found that the human brain is in a “sensitive period” at the kindergarten age, marking this as the time when fundamental skills and knowledge are developed. Given that K-3 represents a significant time in child brain development, learning about topics such as gender and sexual identity at a young age will make children more accepting when they are older. Conversely, avoiding these subjects in schools will produce children that are more closed minded about these identity groups. In this way, this legislation is inherently political and will impact the future social policy landscape in America.
The time to act is now. State legislatures must look beyond the ploy to protect parental rights and refuse to pass bills such as those proposed in Florida and Ohio. Furthermore, the public must recognize the social implications of banning inclusive topics from elementary schools and advocate against such action. Florida House Bill 1557 does not reform existing curriculums for the better — in fact, it doesn’t change them at all. It serves only to hinder the ability of teachers to develop inclusive educational standards. Let’s stop solving problems that don’t exist.
Amiya Mehrotra (PPS ‘24) is a Public Policy Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ’22 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.