TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Senate is on the brink of passing an education measure that would prohibit instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in early grades, as protesters flocked to the Capitol to decry what critics have labeled the "don’t say gay" bill.
The Republican-controlled Senate on Monday rejected a series of amendments proposed by Democrats and positioned the bill (HB 1557) for a vote as soon as Tuesday.
The House voted 69-47 last month to pass the bill, meaning that it will go to Gov. Ron DeSantis if it is approved by the Senate without changes.
Supporters of the proposal, which has the title "Parental Rights in Education," argued that it is geared toward ensuring that curriculum is age-appropriate for young students and that parents have increased control over their children’s education.
The measure would prohibit classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade. For older students, the bill would bar such instruction that is "not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate" as determined by state academic standards.
"We don’t want the social engineering of trying to guide children in a direction, which is very tempting when you are responsible for their growth and development," Senate bill sponsor Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, told The News Service of Florida on Monday.
Critics of the measure have objected to Baxley’s use of the term "social engineering."
Despite arguments from Republicans that the legislation has been mischaracterized by opponents, it remains one of the most controversial issues of the 2022 legislative session.
As senators prepared to take up the bill Monday, about 100 protesters gathered in the Capitol hallways to fight the bill.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, spoke on the Senate floor about the protesters and asked other senators to "open up your hearts."
"I’ve been watching the news, and watching these children who are here in these chambers, and they are here to raise their voices. And it’s commendable to see what they’re doing," said Jones, who fought back tears while speaking about his experience being the first openly gay senator.
"I believe that we all want to do right," Jones said. "It seems as if politics has, we have gone down a road to where we’re scared to just step out and make sure we’re not hurting people."
But Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said young students aren’t ready for the type of instruction that the bill proposes to forbid.
"The maturity level of the student is not ready to accept the conversation on the topic, as far as instruction," Diaz said.
Other parts of the bill are aimed at preventing school districts from adopting policies that would prohibit school employees from notifying parents about students’ "mental, emotional, or physical health" or well-being. Schools also would be prohibited from withholding information about changes to students’ services.
The bill would make an exception for instances where "a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect" of students.
Parents would be able to sue school districts for violations of the bill. The proposal also includes an alternative process to resolve such disputes, which would involve administrative hearings before special magistrates.
Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, slammed the part of the bill about lawsuits.
"Why are we constantly using the threat of a lawsuit to try to get the kind of behavior that we’re looking for?" Polsky said. "What you will get are frivolous lawsuits."
Senate Republicans rejected nearly a dozen proposed amendments, most of which were proposed by Democrats.
But Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, proposed to change the bill’s wording to prohibit instruction on "human sexuality, including, but not limited to, curricula addressing sexual activity, sexual orientation, or gender identity" in kindergarten through third-grade.
"Ultimately what it does is, it gets Senator Baxley the intent that he wants without this bill’s impact. Because it applies equally to all of us … which is what I think we want," Brandes said.
Baxley opposed the proposed change, saying that "we would be moving in the wrong direction in changing this bill."
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, characterized efforts to amend the bill as strategic.
"We all know the intention is just to amend this bill, so that we have to send it back to the House, and we have to debate it again and continue to encourage and continue to allow the misrepresentation of what this bill does. This bill is not intended to hurt students. This bill is not intended to out gay children. This bill is intended to strengthen the family unit," Stargel said.
DeSantis, who has repeatedly pushed back on the "don’t say gay" label, appeared to endorse the legislation Monday.
"We’re going to make sure that parents are able to send their kid to kindergarten without having some of this stuff injected into their school curriculum," DeSantis said during an event in Plant City.