‘Objective’ a matter of perspective in education fight

Arguing that lawmakers “cannot legislate emotions,” House Democrats on Tuesday stepped up attacks on a bill that aims to prevent classroom instruction or workplace training sessions that would lead people to feel “guilt” or “anguish” based on their race or sex.

TALLAHASSEE – Arguing that lawmakers “cannot legislate emotions,” House Democrats on Tuesday stepped up attacks on a bill that aims to prevent classroom instruction or workplace training sessions that would lead people to feel “guilt” or “anguish” based on their race or sex.

Nevertheless, the Republican-dominated House State Affairs Committee approved the measure (HB 7) in a 16-8 vote.

The bill enumerates several race-related concepts that would constitute discrimination if taught in public schools or as part of workplace training on topics such as diversity and inclusion.

For instance, the measure would seek to prohibit workplace training sessions that could lead people to believe that they bear “responsibility for” actions committed in the past by people of the same race or sex.

Similarly, part of the bill dealing with school instruction would label a lesson discriminatory if it “compels” a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.”

The measure was proposed after Gov. Ron DeSantis sought to prevent the teaching of critical race theory, which is based on the premise that racism is embedded in American society. DeSantis in December rolled out a legislative proposal that he called the “Stop Wrongs Against Our Kids and Employees Act,” or Stop WOKE Act.

The House measure and a similar Senate bill (SB 148) do not specifically mention critical race theory. But they appear to be designed to cement in law a prohibition on teaching concepts that are related to the theory.

Democrats and other opponents of the House proposal focused much of their criticism Tuesday on the school-related portion of the bill, arguing that it would stifle teachers’ ability to discuss the realities of American history.

“What if the training or learning of history just makes someone feel guilty just because the history is uncomfortable? What is the distinction between the instructor making someone feel guilty and the person receiving the training just feeling guilty because they are a human being?” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, asked during Tuesday’s committee meeting.

Bill sponsor Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, repeatedly argued that the legislation seeks only to ensure that lessons are taught in an “objective” manner.

“Nothing at all in this bill prohibits or does away with anything that is related to historical facts about slavery, about sexism, racial oppression, racial segregation and racial discrimination,” Avila said.

But Rep. Robin Bartleman, a Weston Democrat who is an educator, rejected arguments that certain historical topics could be taught from a truly objective standpoint — especially those dealing with violence and oppression between racial groups.

“History is not objective. Conversations are uncomfortable. I understand what this bill is trying to do, but … the only way you don’t repeat history is by discussing it. By having honest conversations. By not stifling teachers,” Bartleman said.

As Republicans across the country took aim at critical race theory, the State Board of Education last year approved a rule limiting the way American history, for example, can be taught in classrooms.

Without the votes to defeat the House bill, Democrats could only warn Republicans of potentially tying businesses’ hands on training employees and creating what they described as a chilling effect on teachers. Other critics echoed similar concerns.

Michael Monroe, a lobbyist representing the Florida Education Association teachers union, said the proposal is arousing concern from educators.

“Effective and engaging teachers know how to facilitate sensitive and age-appropriate conversations without indoctrinating students or imposing their personal views,” Monroe said. “Unfortunately, this bill has created anxiety and confusion around what is objective teaching. Teachers are asking, do they dare teach facts that challenge students, inspire critical thinking and civil debate.”

Avila, however, argued that the measure would not change the current process for parents to bring complaints about classroom instruction.

“This (bill) is mainly talking about inserting those principles into what we have in our statutes now, to make sure that the curriculum is being taught in line with those principles,” Avila said.

The bill needs approval from the Education & Employment Committee before it could be considered by the full House. The Senate bill is awaiting a hearing before the Rules Committee before it could go to the full Senate.

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