April 19 (Reuters) – Florida education officials voted on Wednesday to ban classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in all public school grades, expanding a law signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis that banned such lessons for younger students and was derided by critics. As the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
The new rule is part of a broader right-wing push on cultural issues proposed by DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024.
A board of governor-appointed members unanimously approved banning lessons on gender identity or sexual orientation in grades four through 12. .
Last year, DeSantis signed legislation outlawing instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, arguing that parents, rather than teachers, should decide when to discuss those subjects with their children.
Critics, including Democratic Party leader Joe Biden, said the law would marginalize already vulnerable LGBTQ students. The law sparked a war between DeSantis and the Walt Disney Company after the entertainment company publicly opposed the law.
Dozens of speakers gave impassioned remarks during nearly an hour of public comment before Wednesday’s vote, mostly against the measure.
Many opponents said the rule’s language was so vague that teachers would rather avoid the subjects altogether than risk their lives.
For example, some speakers asked if teachers should avoid works of fiction featuring gay characters, while others felt that LGBTQ students or students from LGBTQ families should not be able to discuss their personal lives in class.
“This rule is designed to be a tool for the fear, anxiety and destruction of our LGBTQ community,” said Joe Sanders, senior political director for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.
The state education commissioner, Manny Diaz, supported the proposal, which simply clarified that teachers must adhere to state-approved curricula. Students who need counseling, including mental health, should be referred to professional school counselors rather than teachers, he said.
“We’re not removing anything here,” he said. “What we do is set expectations so that our teachers clearly demonstrate that they are teaching to quality.”
Violation of the rule may result in the suspension or revocation of an educator’s teaching license.
Members of several conservative groups focused on education, including Moms for Liberty and the Florida Citizens Alliance, praised the provision for protecting parents’ rights, while other supporters said it would prevent the “indoctrination” of children.
“These decisions should be left at home for parents to decide when their children should be exposed to this stuff,” said Ryan Kennedy of the Florida Citizens Coalition.
Regulation does not require legislative approval. The Republican-majority Legislature is separately considering a bill in 2022 that would extend the law to eighth grade.
Americans are sharply divided along party lines on the issue.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll from March found 72% of Democrats said they were more likely to vote for a presidential candidate who would allow teachers to discuss sexism and gender identity in school.
Among Republicans, 76% said they were less likely to support such a candidate.
Reporting by Colin Jenkins and Grant McCool Editing by Joseph Axe
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