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Bill Pushing 'Intellectual Freedom' Survey Draws Debate, Passes Senate Education Committee

A large, brick building with a fountain in front of it
Florida State University

The Senate Education Committee has advanced a bill to explore what it calls “intellectual freedom” on college campuses, drawing the most debate of any item at its meeting. Other measures had an easier time being pushed through the committee Tuesday.

A bill backed by Republican Senator Manny Diaz, SB 1296 looks to quantify diversity of viewpoints at state universities.

The measure “requires an objective, non-partisan, statistically valid annual intellectual freedom and diversity assessment by each (State University System) institution,” Diaz said.

That assessment, per the bill, will come in the form of a survey for review by the university system’s Board of Governors. It’s part of a broader higher education measure that also looks to introduce changes making performance funding metrics for universities more accurate.

Critics of the survey want it gone from the bill. Democratic Senator Lori Berman filed an amendment to do just that. It was struck down by the committee

“This process opens the opportunities for political manipulation and could have a chilling effect on intellectual and academic freedom,” Berman said.

Berman adds previous work by the legislature nullifies any need for the move.

“Last session we passed legislation offering full campus access to the right of free speech on campus,” Berman said. “And all viewpoints can be expressed freely and openly, and there is no need for this survey.”

Marshall Ogletree is with the United Faculty of Florida, an organization that represents full-time faculty at state universities. He says members of his group stand opposed to the survey.

“Our UFF Senate, which is our governing board, doesn’t pass things too easily sometimes. But (it) passed a motion in opposition to this proposed survey, unanimously. About 120-0,” Ogletree said.

Like Berman, Ogletree feels protections for free speech are already in place.

“Suddenly, we pass this – we have a survey,” Ogletree said. “So students are suddenly going to feel they can express their viewpoint? They already have the ability to express their viewpoint. What will this do to help that?”

But Republican Senator Dennis Baxley, a perennial conservative voice in the Senate, says he feels there is great need.

“I get all these emails from students that are conservative, and feel very pinched on campuses around this state and around this country. I challenge the whole process by which the department chairs self-select people who think like they do – and it’s incestuous to where you have the same people that have the same think,” Baxley said. “And you don’t fit in if you don’t think like they think.”

The measure ultimately got the committee’s greenlight with a unanimous vote.

Another measure passed by the committee was Democratic Senator Janet Cruz’s bill looking to place point-of-use filters for drinking water at all K-12 public schools. That’s in response to reports of elevated lead in drinking water at aging facilities.

“Members, we have safeguards in place to protect children from lead paint. We protect ourselves with filters on our own refrigerators’ drinking water and dispenser,” Cruz said. “Yet, we’ve done nothing to keep them from drinking water out of tainted water fountains in our schools on a daily basis.”

Under the measure, schools built before 1986 would have a bar code installed at each source of drinking water to ensure filters are placed and adequate maintenance is performed going forward.

Tallahassee allergist Ron Saff, who spearheaded the effort to test for lead in Leon County, says the legislation is the only line of defense.

“In Florida and across the nation, there are virtually no laws that require testing for lead in schools, thus the need for this bill to be passed,” Saff told committee members.

Saff says lead exposure can lead to things behavioral disorders and ADHD in developing brains.

Democratic Senator Bill Montford supports the measure, but has qustions about cost.

“I thoroughly agree with the concept here,” Montford said. “My question though is the cost. Are we expecting the school district to absorb this cost?”

Wayne Bertsch, government relations representative for Pasco County Schools, had similar questions. He says for an already cash-strapped district, there are concerns about cost.

“We would have 34 schools that would fall under the bill, and our maintenance folks costed it out and it was going to probably impact us at about $400,000 to the district,” Bertsch said. “So, while this sounds like a good idea, I think our issue really is, what kind of appropriations would follow the legislation to help us fund it. Because we’re already scratching to keep monies together for teacher increases.”

Even with her measure passing the committee unanimously, Cruz says a price tag has not yet been determined.

“The fiscal has not yet been assessed on this,” Cruz said.

Meanwhile, two measures looking to help schools and colleges reeling from loss of enrollment after Hurricane Michael breezed by the committee with a stamp of approval.

Republican Senator George Gainer’s bill seeks to waive out-of-state tuition for colleges in the impacted areas. He says that’s in the interest of recruiting students.

“We lost 18 percent,” of student enrollment, Gainer said.

The tuition waiver would last for three years, and students would have to do their coursework concurrently without taking a semester off to take advantage of the program.

Senator Montford’s bill similarly looks to help K-12 schools whose enrollment took a hit after the hurricane.

“This bill would hold Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Holmes, Jackson, Liberty and Washington counties harmless this year in changes to their student population,” Montford said.

Both Gainer and Montford’s measures also passed unanimously.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.