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Florida's education board approves librarian training for choosing school materials

library books
Craig Moore
/
WFSU Public Media
Florida's librarians must complete training on how to select books for school classrooms and libraries under new rules approved by the state Board of Education on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

Florida’s top education officials on Wednesday approved a rule to carry out a new state law requiring school-library employees to complete training sessions as part of an effort to increase scrutiny of library books and instructional materials.

The state Board of Education gave the go-ahead to the rule, which was finalized after numerous library books were challenged in school districts around Florida. The challenges were based largely on accusations that the books contain sexually-explicit content.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last year approved a law (HB 1467), passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, requiring school boards to adopt procedures that provide for the “regular removal or discontinuance” of books based on factors such as alignment to state standards.

The rule mandating library-employee training approved Wednesday also stems from the controversial law.

“We have seen, time and time again, questionable and inappropriate materials that have entered our schools,” Paul Burns, deputy chancellor for educator quality with the state Department of Education told members of the education board on Wednesday.

The training focuses in part on content that would be considered harmful to minors under a separate state law. For instance, all library books and learning materials must be free of pornography and appropriate for the grade-levels and age groups of students to which they are made available.

“While there is no statutory definition of pornography in the Florida Statutes, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as ‘the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement,’” one part of the training approved Wednesday said.

Additional guidelines for employees that center on the selection of instructional materials, library books and reading lists require avoiding “unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination.”

Fighting “indoctrination” in classrooms has been a pillar of DeSantis’ education agenda. The governor has focused his efforts in part on weeding out critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American society, from public-schools and the state’s higher-education system.

As DeSantis and lawmakers took steps to scrutinize the content of books on school-library shelves, a debate has simmered over whether the legislation and resulting rule amount to state-sanctioned censorship.

Donna Paz Kaufman, the owner of a Nassau County bookstore, criticized the rule during Wednesday’s board meeting.

“My family came from the former communist bloc. And we know censorship, and we know the dangers of censorship. And when I hear that there’s a government body going to decide what is questionable and inappropriate, I get concerned,” Paz Kaufman said before the board approved the rule.

Paz Kaufman, who said she has been in the publishing and book industry for 40 years, argued that she has heard from educators who’ve expressed concern about the new rule.

“I truly feel for the customers who are teachers, who come into my store, who feel dishonored by this conversation and this new rule,” Paz Kaufman told the board.

But while opponents have maintained that the law and the associated rule are an effort to ban books, conservative groups such as County Citizens Defending Freedom have defended the measures.

“This has never been about banning books, but about ensuring the minor children in our public schools are not being provided books that are simply not age-appropriate. A second-grade teacher cannot show her class an R-rated movie, and a middle-school should not provide pornographic books to their students,” Sarah Calamunci, the group’s state director, said during Wednesday’s meeting.

Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida