(CNN) — After 15 years teaching second and third grade at Burney Elementary, a 350-student school 30 minutes outside Tampa, Emily Lee set up her classroom this month to welcome three- and four-year-olds for pre-K. It's a change she has embraced, she said, a chance to get kids on the right path in their educational journey from a young age.
But as instruction began in most of Florida this past week, there are other changes that make Lee anxious about the new school year. Contentious laws went into effect during the summer recess that restrict how schools teach topics linked to race and sexual orientation. New avenues were created for parents to sue teachers and challenge instructional materials. Math textbooks have been culled for traces of critical race theory. Schools for the first time will have to observe "Victims of Communism Day," during which high schoolers will be taught anti-communism lessons.
Lee is suddenly worried about the books she is putting in her classroom library -- or whether to have one at all -- and wondering if a parent will complain if a student with two moms shares stories from home during class time.
"There has never been this level of politics injected into our job," Lee said.
Across the state, teachers like Lee are returning to classrooms that are now the focal point of an intensifying political divide. In the middle of the debate is Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state's Republican leader and a potential 2024 presidential candidate, who has sought to remove what he calls "woke ideology" from the classroom.
By leading the fight, DeSantis has tapped into the same parental angst over coronavirus classroom rules and school curriculum that fueled Republican Glenn Youngkin's victory in Virginia last year, but to the nth degree. He has engaged in a full-scale effort to reshape school boards by endorsing about two dozen conservative candidates who vow to support his education agenda.
Recently, his administration told school districts to ignore new guidance from the federal government intended to protect transgender students from discrimination.
"We have drawn a very clear line in the sand that says our school system is for educating kids not indoctrinating them," DeSantis said last month in a vigorous call to arms for parents to join him in his education fight.
Teachers under the microscope
The remarks from DeSantis came at the inaugural summit of Moms for Liberty, a group that has mobilized women around the country to fight school boards over cultural touchstones, including curriculum they believe is pushing a liberal agenda or textbooks they say are inappropriate for kids. The conference held in Tampa featured a roster of Republican speakers and included panels that taught parents to monitor their kids' teachers and school staff on social media and provided tips for reviewing library books.
Brandt Robinson, a history teacher at Dunedin High School, believes he has already been the target of some of these surveillance efforts. He said a student registered for his African American history class last year but left a few days later, after which the mother of the student filed an objection with the district based on the syllabus. Robinson said he had to turn over his course materials during a review.
"There's no question there will be some teachers that will give just the facts and where you normally have a difficult discussion about our history or have students read excerpts from slave narratives, maybe that teacher won't do that activity," Robinson said. "It's easy to throw around labels. Our governor often talks about communism and accuses teachers of indoctrination. That's a very fearful kind of image and it brings me back to images of Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s."
Opponents of these new laws also say they have distracted from other pressing issues facing school districts, including funding shortfalls. At least 18 school districts in Florida are asking voters this year to approve referendums to tax themselves to help pay for capital costs such as new schools and maintenance and to raise teacher salaries.
Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, said some teachers are quitting the profession instead of operating in this environment. He accused DeSantis and the groups supporting him of contributing to a teaching crisis that has, by the union's count, left the state short 9,000 educators this fall.
"Why would you accuse teachers of doing things they're not doing?" Spar asked. "These laws are based on lies. It adds to an overall climate that is turning teachers into villains."
The DeSantis administration disputes that teachers are leaving over these laws and said the union overstates the number of vacancies. A more accurate figure will be available later this month once the state has day-one teacher vacancy data for every school district, said Alex Lanfranconi, spokesman for the Florida Department of Education.
Lanfranconi said the department worked overtime to approve 7,700 new teacher certifications since July 29. Earlier this year, DeSantis signed a bill that allows military veterans to teach without a bachelor's degree. Though it passed the state legislature unanimously, the new law has become a lightning rod for criticism on social media.
"You give me somebody who has four years of experience as a [Marine] over somebody who has four years of experience at Shoehorn U and I will take the Marine every day of the week and twice on Sunday," DeSantis said at a recent news conference.
Fierce divisions and immense confusion
Two new education laws that took effect July 1 have absorbed the brunt of the concern. One is a bill called Parental Rights in Education, which bans instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 or in a way that is not "age appropriate" in other grades. Opponents dubbed the legislation the "Don't Say Gay" bill, and its passage led to student walkouts, protests at the state capital and an objection from Disney, the state's largest employer.
The second new law is the Stop WOKE Act. While the bill does not mention critical race theory, its intention was to prevent teachings that suggest a person is privileged or oppressed based necessarily on their race, sex or national origin.
In addition to fostering fierce divisions, opponents of the legislation say the new laws are also vague and have instigated immense confusion over what is now allowed. For example, the legislation did not define what is "age appropriate" instruction of sexual orientation.
Orange County discussed limiting LGBTQ "ally" symbols like rainbow lanyards and "Safe Space" stickers before informing teachers August 1 such items wouldn't be banned. Miami-Dade County School Board has gone back and forth on whether to use a certain health textbook for sex education classes after some parents objected to references made to abortion and gender identity.
"The way bills were written was left open to interpretation and the interpretation is in favor of parents who want to sue us," said Jessica Vaughn, a member of the Hillsborough County school board and a Democrat. "The result is schools and teachers are self-censoring."
Bridget Ziegler, a Republican school board member in Sarasota County, said some opponents of the legislation are intentionally interpreting the new laws in ways that are inconsistent with what the statutes actually say in hope of drawing sensational coverage.
"People say books are being banned," Ziegler said. "But it's not about banning, it's about vetting and ensuring the materials -- whether it's book, materials, magazine or assignments -- that it hits the mark and is relevant from an instructional standpoint and appropriate."
Much of the criticism, she said, "is highly out of line and intended to create a sense of fear. It's being used as a political ploy, and it's to the detriment of our kids."
Adding to the uncertainty is that the state has not yet provided guidance for how schools must implement the Stop WOKE Act, said John Sullivan, spokesman for Broward County Public Schools. With more than 260,000 students, the Broward district is one of the 10 largest in the country.
Opponents are concerned schools will teach a watered-down version of history that glosses over some of America's most troubling periods.
"We will continue to teach accurate and factual history," Sullivan said, "and if we have to adjust anything based on guidance we will do so."
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said the law is clear in that it requires the teaching of facts, not theories.
"That includes the facts about slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the Civil Rights Movement," Pushaw said. "African-American history is American history, and it's required to be taught under Florida law."
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