Florida education board approves expanding Parental Rights law through 12th grade

The Florida Board of Education approved a ban on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in all grades on Wednesday, at the request of Gov. Ron DeSantis as he gears up for an expected presidential run.

The proposal, which expands the Parental Rights in Education Law – dubbed by critics as the "Don’t Say Gay" bill – will take effect after a procedural notice period that lasts about a month, according to an education department spokesperson.

The rule change would ban lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity through 12th grade unless required by existing state standards or as part of reproductive health instruction that students can choose not to take. Florida currently bans such lessons in kindergarten through third grade.

The DeSantis administration put forward the proposal last month as part of the Republican’s aggressive conservative agenda, as DeSantis leans heavily into cultural divides ahead of his looming White House candidacy.

DeSantis has not commented on the proposal. He previously directed questions to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr., who said it is meant to clarify confusion around the existing law and reinforce that teachers should not deviate from existing curriculums.

"We’re not removing anything here," Diaz Jr. said on Wednesday. "All we are doing is we are setting the expectations so our teachers are clear: that they are to teach to the standards."

The prohibition, which began last year with the law banning sexual orientation and gender identity lessons in kindergarten through third grade, has drawn intense backlash from critics who argue it marginalizes LGBTQ+ people.

"Let’s put it plainly: This is part of the governor’s assault on freedom," Joe Saunders, senior political director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida, said in a statement. The policy will "further stigmatize and isolate a population of young people who need our support now more than ever."

Opponents say the rule change doesn’t improve vague terminology in the law. They say phrases such as "classroom instruction," "age appropriate" and "developmentally appropriate," could be broadly interpreted and lead to self-censorship by educators.

Educators have said they don’t expect a major change in lesson plans given that teachers adhere to state education curriculums, fueling criticism that the policy is a culture war cudgel meant to satisfy conservative Republicans.

The current law also provoked an ongoing feud with Disney, one of the state’s largest employers.

The entertainment giant publicly opposed the legislation last year, and as punishment, DeSantis pushed lawmakers to give him control of a self-governing district Disney has run for decades to oversee its theme park properties.

Before a set of new DeSantis appointees could assume control of the district, Disney’s board passed restrictive covenants that strip the incoming members of most of their powers, blunting the governor’s retaliation.

DeSantis then directed Florida’s chief inspector general to investigate the Disney board’s move, and has vowed to take additional revenge against the company through legislation.