Photo via NSF
Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, is sponsoring a controversial bill about race-related instruction in schools and workplaces.
A proposal aimed at limiting how various race-related concepts are discussed in classrooms and workplace training sessions received initial backing Wednesday in the House, inching forward Gov. Ron DeSantis’ push against critical race theory.
The Republican-dominated House Judiciary Committee approved the bill (HB 7) in a 14-7 vote. In part, the proposal seeks to prevent workers or students from being subject to training or instruction that “compels” them to believe a slew of ideas spelled out in the bill.
For instance, part of the bill dealing with workplace training would deem sessions discriminatory if they lead an employee to believe that they “(bear) responsibility for, or should be discriminated against” because of “actions committed in the past” by people of the same race or sex.
Similarly, the measure would attempt to shield public-school students and employees from instruction or training that promotes concepts such as any person being “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
DeSantis for months has called for lawmakers to prevent the use of critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American institutions.
The House proposal and a similar Senate bill (SB 148) don't specifically mention critical race theory. But the measures came after DeSantis last month announced a legislative proposal dubbed the “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act.
House sponsor Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, defended the measure as being geared toward ensuring people don’t face hostility on the job or in school.
“Florida’s students and workers deserve to learn and earn in positive environments that value each individual,” Avila said.
But Democrats and other critics slammed the legislation as an overreach by Republicans.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, described the bill as an attempt by the Legislature to “become the thought police” and warned that it would tie the hands of businesses.
“This bill is a classic example of a false equivalency, where we’re saying that individual freedom is the same as not feeling ‘discomfort, guilt or anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race,’” Driskell said, quoting from a part of the bill. “Individual freedom is not the same thing as being free from feelings. Those two things don’t equate.”
Democrats also questioned Avila about part of the bill that requires school instruction to be “given in an objective manner.”
Avila, who previously has worked as an adjunct professor at Broward College, responded in part by saying that the responsibility to ensure lessons remain objective would be left to teachers’ discretion.
“We’re leaning more and more on teachers to really kind of be a role model to our students. Certainly with parents working more and more because the cost of living is so high, students are really in a position where they’re relying heavily on teachers to serve as that role model,” Avila said. “So, really, it’s incumbent on the teacher to show restraint, in terms of inserting any sort of belief or any sort of ideology that is not consistent with the values … that we’re trying to make sure that students feel like they’re learning in a positive environment.”
However, several opponents who testified Wednesday argued that requiring objectivity in instruction could not stop students from feeling emotions like guilt or discomfort.
“Data elicits emotional response. Objectively presented data elicits subjective response. For example, if I’m in a high-school health class and I’m presented with data … and that data shows the low infant birth rate of African-American babies versus babies born to white women, that elicits a response,” said Danielle Irwin of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Avila repeatedly argued that the measure does not attempt to censor teachers from discussing any historical events.
Part of the bill dealing with school curriculum said teachers are allowed to facilitate discussions on topics such as sexism, slavery, racial oppression and segregation. However, the measure prohibits those discussions from aiming to “indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view” that is inconsistent with state standards.
The House bill needs to clear two more committees before it can be considered by the full House. The Senate bill needs approval from the Rules Committee before it could be teed up for floor action.