(This website is about math and math education. While I don’t normally write about Topics of the Day, it’s crucial that parents and educators understand the text and purpose of Florida’s House Bill 1557, which specifically targets teachers and students.)
I’ve never been much of a proponent of fleeing a state because you disagree with policies enacted by its legislators. I’ve always been of the belief that you can make community in just about any community. But certain policies enacted by two states close to my heart for different reasons, have shook this belief to the core. The belief that we can disagree with the policies of our legislators while still maintaining a life happily in their jurisdiction. Heck, I’ve done this with the U.S. my whole life and teaching career. As a pacifist, I acknowledge that I live in a country addicted to militarism and that much of my tax dollars go to that militarism.
The governor of Texas recently gave a directive to local Child Protective Service agencies and “members of the general public” to prosecute parents who seek gender affirming therapy for their transgendered kids. This comes on the heels of the only hospital in the state no longer offering gender affirming treatment. Gender affirming therapies can apply to all sorts of permanent and non-permanent therapies. The vagueness of the directive makes one think it could even be referring to talk therapy. But the point of the directive isn’t to be specific, it’s to foster terror in transgendered youth and their accepting parents.
But that’s not the law that I want to write about. This is, after all, a blog ostensibly about education. The Texas directive doesn’t specifically target students or teachers.
The Florida Law HB 1557, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill does. The law allows for any parent to sue a school if they feel their child is being taught about sexual ideology in a way they don’t like.
According to the text of the bill, the law “prohibit[s] classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.” Under the law, any parent that believes their student has witnessed a discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity may “bring an action against the school district to obtain a declaratory judgment that the school district procedure or practice violates this paragraph and seek injunctive relief.”
Proponents of the law claim that it’s to protect kids from receiving messages about sex from teachers rather than parents. However, the vagueness of the law and the deputizing of all parents allows the law to be applied however one sees fit. What does it mean to “discuss sexual orientation or gender identity?” The most generous possible interpretation is that it prohibits teaching students about sex. But you have to be disingenuous or naive to interpret it that way. Also, the text of the bill doesn’t actually prohibit teaching Kindergartners about sex, only “sexual orientation or gender identity.” But don’t take my word for it or the bill’s text’s words for it. Take the sponsor of the bill, State Senator Dennis Baxley and fellow Republican State Senator Travis Hudson, who says that hypothetical math problems such as “Sally has two moms or Johnny has two dads” is exactly what the bill is trying to prevent.
Drilling down, the law decrees that “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3.” Once again, there is no mention of actual restriction of sex-talk, only the broadly defined discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s also not clear what “classroom instruction” entails. “Discussing sexual orientation or gender identity” might mean simply acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ+ individuals.
If I ask young students to research notable mathematicians and a child researches, say, Alan Turing, the young scholar will no doubt discover that this groundbreaking mathematician, the father of modern computer science, is gay. Has the student been taught about “sexual orientation or gender identity” in that case? If a parent believes so, they can bring action against the school.
I could offer a math problem that suggests that two parents are of the same sex:
Jon earns $45,000 a year and his husband, Logan, earns $55,000. What is their total annual yearly income?
While this problem doesn’t necessarily discuss sexual orientation, it does acknowledge it. Am I now under threat of lawsuit?
The first and most likely victims of the law are LGBT elementary teachers. If a teacher with a same sex spouse mentions that fact, even offhandedly, a parent could easily sue the school. Maybe the lawsuit will be unsuccessful. Maybe the school or district will marshall their vast financial resources to fight the lawsuit in full force. More likely, the teacher will be dismissed because it’s less of a financial burden for a district to replace a teacher than fight a lawsuit.
Here’s a conversation a teacher might have with a student:
Male Teacher: What did you do this weekend, Tomas?
Tomas: I went to the pool. What did you do?
Male Teacher: My wife and I went to the movies.
That conversation would be perfectly ok under this law.
This conversation might not be:
Male Teacher: What did you do this weekend, Tomas?
Tomas: I went to the pool. What did you do?
Male Teacher: My husband and I went to the movies.
That conversation could lead to a lawsuit because the teacher happened to mention that he has a husband. Now maybe for 95% of parents, that’s no big deal. But if 5% of parents are offended by this conversation because they spend their day ingesting cable TV or right wing talk radio, they can sue the school. Assuming a typical class size of 20-30 students (meaning maybe 30-50 parents) it’s very likely someone will have found the opportunity to be offended enough. It might not even require a conversation. If a teacher with a same-sex partner has a picture of their family on the desk, that could result in a lawsuit. If a child of same sex parents draws a picture of their family, the teacher would have to consider whether to hang it up on the wall or not, under the threat of a parent lawsuit.
Of course, my math problem, my research project, and the teacher’s spousal identity isn’t about sexual ideology because this law isn’t really about sex. It’s about striking terror into students and teachers and recloseting them. It’s also about striking terror into schools if their hiring pool includes LGBTQ+ individuals. If you’re in HR in a school district and you have a candidate who’s mere existence as a non-straight person might lead to a parent suing due to teaching children about sex the district might be less inclined to hire that teacher.
While currently these scenarios I’ve laid out exist in the hypothetical, the Texas law brought about immediate deputizing of citizens against one another. The directive led to quick reporting of parents of transgendered youth. In Texas, the hypothetical was only hypothetical for a moment before it became reality. Moreover, this comes on the heels of various bills throughout the country that would criminalize educators based on educational materials. In Tennessee, HB 1944 would criminalize librarians for holding LGBT materials, which Republicans decry as “pornography.” If you criticize the law, as I’m doing here, the Florida Republican party will call you a pedophile or “groomer,” because the GOP has become indistinguishable from QAnon.
I won’t attend or speak at an education conference in Florida while this law is on the books. No education company, non-profit, or professional organization should grace Florida’s presence in the form of a conference. I understand that large organizations can’t adhere to moral principles with every large get together. The National Basketball Association moved their midseason All-Star game away from North Carolina after the state passed a law targeting transgendered individuals (you might remember it as the “bathroom bill”) until the law was changed while scheduling their 2024 All-Star game in Utah, who is currently in the process of passing another vicious anti-transgender law. No state will have wholly moral legislation; it’s why I said at the outset I’m generally not a move-if-you-don’t-like-it guy. I was prepared to speak at NCTM Atlanta in 2021 until it was canceled due to COVID, despite the furor over anti-voting legislation.
However, the specificity with which the Florida Law targets teachers and students should be a line in the sand for education organizations. Education organizations need to be clear about this law as an attack on students, teachers and the work of public schooling. Schools should not be under threat of lawsuit because a great teacher is not straight. Individual teachers should not have to go back in the closet to ensure their livelihood. The Florida Law does that.
I do consulting and professional workshops with districts, teachers, and schools as a supplement to my income while I’m in school. It’s work that I enjoy: bringing the messages of Necessary Conditions to teachers across the country virtually and in-person. It also allows me the immense privilege of seeing how schools work in various locations: rural, urban, large schools, small charters, etc. However, going forward, my first questions to any Florida school or district that would like to work with me will be “What are you doing to keep your LGBTQ+ students and teachers safe and feel welcome? And what are you doing to actively work against the Florida bill HB 1557”? I’m not opposed to working with Florida schools as I assume most teachers, administrators, superintendents, and even parents are against this law (if they understood its potential consequences). I would indeed like to partner with such schools. However, I must know that schools and their leadership are focused on fighting the law while ensuring the safety and wellbeing of their teachers and students. To be sure, it’s been a couple years since I have partnered with a Florida school, so I’m exactly not martyring myself.
You might ask why I don’t make the same stipulation for Texas, Tennessee, or Utah or the many other states that are adopting legislation targeting transgendered individuals. I don’t have a good answer, other than the Florida law is specific in its targeting of educators and students. There’s a step removed between the Texas directive of deputizing its citizens against families with transgendered youth and the school system. Although that might change. Republican legislators will no doubt continue to one-up one another in whipping up anti-LGBT sentiment.
The good news is that courts are currently examining these anti-LGBT laws. While to me, the laws are obviously discriminatory, we’ll have to wait and see what the courts think.
I wish I could convey that this is a moral issue, not a political one. I’ve readily been critical of the Democratic party when it comes to its worship of corporations, embracing of ICE, NIMBY tendencies and treatment of the homeless. But there’s no “both sidesing” the issue of HB 1557 and similar post-2020 anti-LGBT legislation. There is one party that is attempting to find every possible pressure point in the legislative and legal system to harm LGBTQ+ individuals.
We all have different lines in the sand. This one’s mine. I won’t begrudge anyone whose line is different from mine. As an okay math consultant and PhD student from my safe haven of Colorado, I don’t have the largest systemic footprint. But I hope that other consultants and education organizations make clear their stance on HB 1557.