UPDATE: Florida Commissioner of Education attacks Popular Information
The Florida Commissioner of Education, Manny Diaz Jr., lashed out at Popular Information's recent reporting on Florida classroom libraries, calling it "fake news from media activists too lazy to read [Florida] law." But Popular Information's reporting was completely accurate — and later confirmed by other outlets, including the Washington Post. It was Diaz, in an interview published Monday by the conservative National Review, who grossly misrepresented his own department's guidance in an effort to defend Governor Ron DeSantis (R).
On January 23, Popular Information reported that teachers in Manatee County, Florida are being told to make their classroom libraries inaccessible to students, or risk felony prosecution. A memo created by the Manatee County School District, and distributed to principals, instructed teachers to "remove or cover all classroom libraries until all materials can be reviewed."
Kevin Chapman, the Chief of Staff for the Manatee County School District, told Popular Information that at the same January 18 meeting where the memo was distributed, principals were advised that teachers that fail to comply with the rules regarding classroom libraries could face stiff penalties, including third-degree felony charges. This message was passed on to Manatee County teachers.
Diaz told the National Review that teachers who packed up their classroom libraries were simply participating in a "stunt" intended to damage DeSantis politically. “I think this is clearly an intentional effort to cause confusion and make it look like the state of Florida, the governor, the legislature, are trying to ban books or trying to create this authoritarian state,” Diaz said.
Diaz said that teachers were free to "apply common sense when examining their classroom libraries" and only remove books that, in the teacher's opinion, are in a "gray area." More from Diaz:
When you’re looking at these, if there’s something in a gray area that you think could be an issue, pull that book aside and have it vetted by the process to make sure that indeed it should be in that library. That doesn’t mean that you cover your library or shut it down.
Diaz's recommendations to teachers directly contradicts the training produced by his own agency, the Florida Department of Education. Slide 22 of the training says that only a "certified media specialist" can select materials for any school library, including classroom libraries.
(Although the slide focuses on elementary classrooms, another rule, adopted by the Florida Department of Education on January 18, 2022, defines classroom libraries in all grades as a type of school library.)
The training reminds media specialists that making material "harmful to minors" available could result in felony prosecution. It also urges media specialists to "err on the side of caution" with all books. Diaz pretends all this guidance does not exist, and that, for the most part, teachers can continue to curate classroom libraries independently.
Diaz also said that teachers' concerns are unwarranted because only materials deemed "harmful to minors" would result in a "third-degree felony." This is cold comfort because right-wing activists and their allies in government consider books by Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison pornography. Further, Diaz notes that a teacher who allows books that are unvetted and inappropriate — but not "harmful to minors" — "would be addressed through an administrative process." That administrative process could result in a teacher having their license revoked and losing their job.
Teachers are still in the dark
Diaz encouraged teachers to exercise "common sense" regarding their classroom libraries. But the Florida Department of Education will not answer basic questions about what kind of books are permitted in Florida schools.
Specifically, the recently enacted Parental Rights In Education Act, known as "Don't Say Gay," prohibits all instruction on "sexual orientation or gender identity" in K-3 classrooms and instruction in other grades that is "not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate." The STOP Woke Act, another new law, limits discussion and instruction of certain racial issues. The laws appear to be limited to "classroom instruction." But can materials that would violate these laws be made available in a classroom library?
The training issued by the Florida Department of Education doesn't answer that question. The Florida Association for Supervisors of Media (FASM) requested that the Florida Department of Education clarify the issue. But, as the Washington Post reported last week, the Department has yet to respond. “They will not tell us in writing,” Michelle Jarrett, the president of FASM, said last week. "We’re not getting a clear message.”
It is a critical question. Applying the "Don't Say Gay" and the "STOP Woke" laws to classroom libraries would likely mandate the removal of scores of books. A teacher found to be in violation of either law is subject to the "revocation or suspension of the individual educator's [teaching] certificate." It is a career-ending offense.
Popular Information asked Chapman if Manatee teachers should remove books from classroom libraries that are not consistent with the "Don't Say Gay" and the "STOP Woke" laws. "In regards to books in school media centers or classrooms, the School District of Manatee County is abiding by all applicable laws and statutes of the state of Florida, and adhering to the guidance of the Florida Department of Education," Chapman replied, not answering the question.
Teachers in Manatee County are required to look up all of the titles in their classroom libraries, determine which ones are already available in the library (and therefore have already been vetted by a librarian), and remove any unvetted books. But, at a school board meeting last week, Manatee County Schools' Director of Curriculum, Laurie Breslin, acknowledged that this was a time-consuming process that most teachers did not have the capacity to do during the school year. Therefore, Breslin said, the county was soliciting volunteers to assist teachers with this process.
Right-wing activists hostile to Florida teachers are seizing on the opportunity. The Manatee Patriots is seeking "Woke Busters" to "SAVE the CHILDREN and OUR Society."
They are urging their members to "get into the school Libraries" and determine whether teachers are "following the laws." Volunteers are urged to "be on watch for anything that looks inappropriate," including "activism" and "globalism."
Chad Choate, the chair of the Manatee County School Board who was appointed by DeSantis, was the featured speaker at a meeting of the Manatee Patriots on Tuesday night.
Popular Information is a three-person newsletter, but we can rattle the cages of some of the most powerful politicians in the country.
You can support our work — and help us do more of it — by upgrading to a paid subscription.