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Episode 22, Parent Power: Defending Children’s Freedom to Learn

A growing number of Florida parents are expressing their opposition and concerns over the increasing list of books that are being removed from Florida public school classroom and district libraries. They say it’s another attack on education that could impede student success and push more educators out of the classroom.

In this episode, you’ll hear how these parents are mobilizing support and fighting back within their local communities. And you’ll learn what you can do to become an education activist and join the movement to regain safe schools and the freedom for students to read, learn, and thrive.

Transcript

Andrew Spar, FEA President: Hi, this is FEA President Andrew Spar. To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools. Be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast, visit www.feaweb.org/podcast.

Announcer: Sharon: You’re listening to Educating from the Heart. Thank you for joining our lively conversations with. Support professionals, parents, and students as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.

Luke, Host: Hello and welcome to another episode of Educating From the Heart. This is Luke. I’m here along with my co-host. And I’m just wondering, Tina, for your children, was there ever a time as a parent that you wish they had fewer books available to them in the classroom?

Tina, Host: No. (laughter) Most parents recognize that reading is important to learning.

In fact, most parents would make sure that they, their child has every book possible. Because one of the most important things about, uh, student development or, or learning is exposure. And exposing your children to as many things as possible and sitting down and talking with them about these. That’s, that’s how you help children mature and grow and develop.

Luke, Host: So along those lines, as a parent, did you ever wish that the governor came in and told your child that he could not take an AP class? In whatever it is that he wanted to take.

Tina, Host: No. No. Especially if it’s an elective class. No, no. That’s not right. How I, I don’t under, as a parent, I do not understand how an elected official can dictate what my child can take and not take what, what courses?

I don’t understand what he’s attempting to accomplish here. He, he is stifling education in Florida. Basically, he is hurting children’s future by doing this, and, uh, I, I’m not really sure why this is happening. We know that there are thousands and thousands of students throughout the state that don’t have books to read in their classrooms. Now teachers are being told to remove books out of their classrooms. That’s crazy. Who has ever heard of a classroom without books in it and resources to help students?

Luke, Host: You know, I don’t fully understand it either, but what I do know is that the majority of parents, Tina, agree with you.

They want their children to have access to books. They want their children to have to be in a classroom with a classroom library, and they want their children to learn the full history of the United States, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Because the only way that we can fix our mistakes as a nation is if we are able to fully reckon with them. Recently we sat down with three parents to talk about what they want for their children and how it is quite different from the agenda that Governor DeSantis is pushing.

RAEGAN MILLER, Parent Advocate: I’m Raegan Miller. I’m a parent. I have two kids. I have a middle schooler and an elementary schooler, and I am a parent advocate. I was involved, honestly, I got recruited to join the PTA at parent orientation before my child even joined kindergarten. I jumped in full force. And then I started working, you know, on the recess movement several years ago and really got to know the process of advocacy and got to know our legislators, and I got more involved in PTA and the advocacy piece of pta. And then I’ve, you know, continued.

I see the amazing things that I’ve always been involved in the classroom. I see the amazing things being done in our public schools, and my dream is that, you know, everybody can see our public schools the way that I see them, and that I think the way most parents who are in the public school systems is that we have amazing teachers, and we have amazing students, and the sky is the limit for what we can do here in Florida. And I think what we want to see is we want to hold our legislators, our governor to the fire and say that we want that high quality, safe education that’s guaranteed in our constitution.

JABARI HOLSEY, President of Families for Safe Schools: Hi, I’m Jabari Holsey, parent of three elementary students. I never thought I would ever be needed or would be in a situation where I had to be a parent activist outside of an activist for my children in supporting our schools. But I’m currently president of Families for Safe Schools.

One of the founders for that organization realized there was a need during this climate that has kind of overtaken our public schools as long as well as our legislation all the way up the chain, and so we’re basically here. I’m here as a parent and as a leader of this organization to make sure that our public schools stay strong, keep progressing because we have a lot of room, and we’ve always had a lot of room, for growth in our public schools to be inclusive, to have accurate history, to make sure that we have equity in our schools. And I’m here to continue that progress and not let that get stifled with political agendas.

JEN COUSINS, CO-FOUNDER OF FREEDOM TO READ PROJECT:  Hi, I’m Jen Cousins, and I am a parent advocate. I have four kids in the OCPS system: two in elementary, one in middle, and one in high school. And I am one of the co-founders of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which we formed last year. Oh gosh, no, I guess now it’s officially almost two years ago.

In reaction to the book bans that we saw coming once Moms for Liberty had backed off of the mask mandates when DeSantis made them illegal, their next step was going after books. And we saw it happen in our community, and we weren’t going to allow them to continue on with it. So, we’re holding our school boards accountable.

Our organization is tracking what books get challenged because we know that there are very specific themes that are being challenged, specifically LGBTQ and BIPOC titles. And you know, we want to make sure that the kids in Florida who attend public schools get the right education, get to learn the right kind of history, get to learn about marginalized communities. We don’t want them to learn what DeSantis has on his agenda for stifling our education. And so my goal ultimately is to make sure that my youngest, who is in first grade, is able to graduate public school in Florida and have a quality education.

TINA DUNBAR, HOST: During the past election, the Parent Bill of Rights was a major theme in the primary as well as the general election. You are standing up for public schools and you’re standing up for parents who want their children to attend public education. As a parent, do you feel that this law stands up for you, support your goals?

JABARI: I think it was something that was unnecessary. I think parent involvement is, we know it’s key. It’s key to the success of our students. And parents, in my history of working with my schools and, and being in public schools, parents have always had that opportunity to be involved. They always had a voice, they always had an opportunity to work with their teachers, their principals, administrators attend school board meetings, all of the above.

And I think that Parent Bill of Rights was to double down on a political agenda to create what one of these boogeyman where it’s like, “Hey, you know, parents are being blocked from being involved.” And it’s not true. So, it’s difficult for me to take a deep dive into it because I really believe it was an unnecessary thing that has now created more problems than what was already there from the beginning. So that, that’s my take.

JEN: I think what people need to realize is that parents always had rights in Florida schools, you know, well before this, you always had the right to say, “I don’t want my kid to check this book out of the library.”

You always had the right to go to your teacher and say, “I don’t want my kid to read this book as part of an assignment.” And your teacher would give you a different book that your kid could do an assignment on. Parents have never been kept out of schools. This was completely unnecessary, and it was 100% a targeted attack on our marginalized communities.

And we’re trying to stifle our children’s learning, and we’re trying to not only stifle their learning, but also stifle our children living these experiences. And it’s really disturbing. 

RAEGAN: Yeah, I will echo what Jabari and Jen said that this was unnecessary, that we’ve always had rights. I’ve never had a teacher, I mean, some may be better at responding than others, but I’ve had very few that haven’t responded to me immediately.

I’ve always been able to raise any concern that I’ve had, and it’s always been answered. And, you know, we have, we have great administrators, we have great teachers. And the curriculum has always been transparent. There’s never been anything hidden and you, you’ve always had, you have always had these rights. So, this was definitely a political agenda.

LUKE FLYNT: So again, I, I don’t have children. My experience in the public school system was as a teacher. But I’m wondering sort of the same question that Tina asked, and Jen, you touched on this a little bit, but it’s clear that you don’t feel your rights as parents are being respected. But I’m curious about how all of this politicization of schools is impacting your children.

RAEGAN: I’ll jump in with one story, which I’ve shared before. And I know, I know Jen. I mean, obviously we all talk. But there was a story my eighth grader came home with the other day, which was really disturbing. They were talking, the teacher brought up Emmett Till and talked about a lynching, and one of the kids said, what is a lynching? And the teacher paused and said, “Ooh, I don’t know if I can teach that.” And these are eighth grade students and then the student said, “What do you mean they don’t want us to learn?”  And the teacher said, “Some do and some don’t.” And to me that is such an example that is ridiculous. These lynchings happen. They didn’t happen that long ago in the grand scheme of things. And it is perfectly appropriate for students to understand that these things happen. And this, I will also add, is an advanced level English classes.

JEN: You know, we kind of had a similar example in Orange County last year, last fall. There was somebody at a school board meeting where a grandparent came in and was very upset that his second grader was reading a book about the Ocoee massacre.

And you know, he tiptoed around his racism by saying, “My second grader shouldn’t be learning about murder.” And it’s like, no, that’s not why you’re mad about this book. But it also is, it’s stifling our LGBTQ kids as well. You know, in Pasco County, safe space stickers were removed from classrooms, which is absolutely abhorrent.

You know, they’re losing access to books that they can read their, you know, experiences, how they can identify how to help them understand how they’re feeling. And it’s really putting targets on the backs of students that are already marginalized to begin with.

JABARI: Yeah. And to piggyback off of all of that, I think one thing, um, we need to reiterate is that what we’ve seen, especially in Brevard County is the pressure on teachers, right?

Whether it’s the Parents Bill of Rights or all this legislation that has passed, it’s put so much pressure, it has made teaching almost undesirable in Brevard County, and I’m sure across Florida. And so, teachers are put in a box, like the scenarios we just talked about, where they’re afraid to even have these conversations.

They’re afraid to discuss certain topics or address even current issues. So from not necessarily direct experience outside of our teachers giving this feedback, and we do, our organization has teachers in it, and we correspond with teachers that have exited profession. And a lot of it has been the fear of lawsuits, the fear of not having these discussions and just the loss of learning that is no longer a part of our public educational system because they cannot, or they feel like they cannot go into these topics without pressure from an administration or the state or a parent that could potentially sue them or the school.

TINA:  I feel like the majority of parents feel the way the three of you feel. I feel that there is a minority of parents who are part of this wave that’s going on right now. What would you say to other parents who want to stand with you? I mean, many people may feel intimidated in terms of approaching the school board because, but that is very important right now in terms of what’s happening in your school district.

What advice would you give to parents who say, this is not what I want for my children, and “I’m not taking my kids out of public schools either,” which is part of the ploy here. So how can you help parents engage in this advocacy?

JABARI: So I love this question because this is a conundrum. So parents are parents. We are busy. We didn’t necessarily sign up for, to have a, a full-time job or a full-time effort with the children and maintaining that on top of having full-time advocacy and going to school boards and having to attend all these activities to understand sort of the microcosms of the public school system and the changes that we need to try and prevent. So, a lot of that is bite size pieces. So, organizations like the ones we are a part of informing parents, I think it’s important that parents, if I’m speaking to them, to get a part of it, step one is to be informed.

So, try and stay connected closely to your public school. The updates they have via Facebook, the emails they send out, as well as the legislation if you can. In public school advocacy, advocacy groups like ourselves who try and send out those updates about local changes, statewide changes.

And then the next step is how to be involved. There’s so many layers to it, like you said. There are some parents who don’t wanna go necessarily to school boards and to have shouting matches because some of these school board meetings have become very negative. I mean, the press is all over and it can be intimidating.

So there’s other, other ways to be involved. We need people who can write letters to the school board, right? We still need emails, we still need research. We still need these things. But my key for a parent who is not, does not have a history of advocacy and dealing with these sort of things is start by staying informed, and doing what you can to stay connected as closely as you can to your school legislation and school board.

And if you have concerns, address them. Send those emails out, send out those conversations, have those meetings. You can set up meetings and start there.

TINA: Any other advice, Raegan? Jen?

RAEGAN: I would just say, you know, hey, find, find a, a friend you can learn from. Um, I’m happy to go with anybody. I’m happy to introduce you. What I’ve learned is, you know, five years ago, I don’t know, seven years ago, if you’d asked me where to find a legislator or a school board, I wouldn’t have known. I’ll tell you now. I could find them, I can call them. I like, you have to take the baby steps. You have to learn the process. But I also think it’s so important to talk to your teachers, and I think that’s the first step. Find out what’s going on in the classroom. Ask the questions. At the beginning of the year, we got a letter home that I had to give permission for my son to use the classroom library. Right. And, and I don’t think that they were required to do that. I think that they were covering themselves. Because this teacher is obviously paying attention to what’s going on, and I’m not sure that all are. And so, I think when you see things like that, ask questions, why are we doing this. And, and ask questions.

Take politics out of it. This should not be political, like our kids’ education is not political. You don’t have to pick a side. I will talk to anybody from any party about the importance of public education, and we need to remember, and that the number is probably hovering right at 90%. 90% of our students attend public schools. They choose public schools and, and it’s important.

It is going to be important going forward. It’s important now, and I think the things we’re looking at, to me, one of the things that scares me the most is, and you know, I’m looking at, with a fifth grader and eighth grader that hopefully I can get my kids through with a, without a lot of damage being done.

But I know Jen has a first grader. What does this mean as we limit what they’re able to learn, where are they going to go to college? What colleges outside the state of Florida, what are they going to think of these students that don’t understand the concept of what a lynching is? Like that’s really sad to me.

And as a parent, that is not political. That is concerning. I want my kids to look at everything, to understand everything and to see the world. So, find a friend, talk to your teachers, ask them how you can help. Talk to your principals, get to know people. They’re all human beings. They’re not, they don’t sit on pedestals. Most of them are very nice human beings that are willing to engage a discussion.

TINA: Jen?

JEN: You know, search for groups like ours in your regions. You know, families for Safe Schools does an amazing job in Brevard County. Our group, Florida Freedom to Read has had a lot of success in Orange County and in Hillsboro and Pinellas.

Like you said, school board meetings can be intimidating because I’m sure all three of us here have been shouted at and accosted at a meeting. But you don’t have to speak, you know, you can go with a group, you don’t have to talk, you can just be there. Having bodies in the room is incredibly important.

You can call in, you can write emails, you can request private meetings with your school board rep themselves to address it directly rather than the nerves of getting up in front of a room and talking. So yeah, that’s what I would add.

TINA: I know one of the questions that I keep asking over and over again, is if we continue down this path that we’re on right now, what’s public education going to look like in 10, 20 years? What are we creating? And for us as adults now for adults who will sit back, say, all take care of itself, don’t worry about it, you have to remember that what the children we have in school now are the people who are gonna take care of us when we’re older, when we go to the grocery store and to the bank? And if they’re not prepared even to, to live in a diverse society. What are we creating?

JEN: Yeah, that’s been a concern of mine, um, actually since we first moved to Florida. Um, well the year that we moved here, my oldest, uh, was in first grade. He started first grade here. Um, and my concern back then was teacher pay and um, support from the administration. And I remember saying way back then, like, oh my gosh, I’m so worried about how little they get paid. Who’s gonna wanna stay here? Who’s gonna wanna teach our kids? And now fast forward all these years later, my last one is in first grade and it scares the hell outta me. You know? I mean, luckily our family is, you know, we embrace diversity. You know, I have an LGBTQ child. My oldest is on the autism spectrum.

You know, our, we have a very diverse group of friends around us at all times. So, they’re exposed to everything. Right. But when you have people like moms for liberties kids, right, they are being brainwashed into a whitewashed history that is devoid of anyone who isn’t white and evangelical. And it’s truly scary. And to Jabari’s point where now these new rules and laws are forcing teachers out of the profession just because they don’t wanna deal with the hassle anymore. Before it was about pay, but now they’ll have their licenses revoked. So, there are how many thousands of dollars in debt for their student loans to become a teacher, and now that’s just yanked away from them?

I wouldn’t wanna stay in it either. And it legit scares me because like you said, I’m not pulling my kids out of public school. I choose public school. If you don’t like us being taught in public school, you can go elsewhere. You don’t get to tell everybody else’s kids what they should be learning. I get to decide what my child learns.

I don’t decide what your child learns. And if you’re in public school, then everybody’s getting the broadcast of it, right? It’s not. It’s not fair, and I really do. It’s plays on my mind constantly about how many teachers are gonna be left because I saw at least 10 leave at the end of the year last year. We’re gonna have a teacher brain drain in Florida.

JABARI: So Tina, you, you hit it on the head with your initial statement, um, and, and Jen just dropped the mic in terms of, uh, uh, everything. I, I echo the same sentiment. She is a hundred percent correct and it’s, it’s watering down our education. So, um, That’s what I see going forward.

If you don’t have quality educators, if you can’t talk about the realities of what’s going on in our society, not to repeat those things, but to improve upon those things, if you’re seeing that, um, our students are, um, not reaching the potential. Because of that, you’re watering down education to the point where there cannot be, uh, a whole individual that can go out into the world, potentially leave Florida, potentially go into diverse areas, potentially just be a well-rounded, non-bigoted person who actually understands how to treat someone with a disability, how to treat somebody fairly, an LGBTQ student.

This doesn’t just carry from school, these are skills that transfer to work. So now what sort of adult are you creating in a work environment? What sort of, um, what sort of, uh, adult are you creating who may join the military, who may go overseas? I mean, we have to think big picture here. We can’t just think in the small microcosm of Florida, this county, this place right now. School public education is designed to help grow our children and turn them into productive citizens that can be successful.

So,  if we continue down this path, this will be a pigeonhole. And those that are now already in a marginalized situation, it’ll be exasperated by far.

LUKE: First, let me just thank you. Like, it, it, I can spend hours, you know, talking to committed, dedicated parents, uh, like you, um, beyond what you have already said. What else do we need to know?

RAEGAN: people need to vote. We’re in this predicament right now because people are not voting. You know, I was really disappointed in the turnout by Dems this past year. and now they have a super majority in both houses. You know the bad education bills are gonna be even worse. And there’s gonna be no problems at all to push them into law. So vote, learn how to register people to vote. Register people, get out. Canvas for your candidates. Get behind your good school board candidates, but vote.

JEN: And I think we know we have a good public school system and we can be better. We have the money in Florida to do that. And we should be doing that, and we should be holding everyone accountable to do that. That is what the right thing to do is by our students, by our teachers, by our family, and by our community.

JABARI: And do your darndest to get engaged with your school district and with your legislation. I know it’s a difficult task. There’s so many layers to it, but get engaged and understand. We as parents are the catalysts of change for our public schools. So I, I just echo the same sentiments.

TINA: That was a very good conversation, hearing from three parents throughout the state who are very involved in their children’s learning and actively involved in their school…talking with teachers and administrators and school board members too.

LUKE: Absolutely. And one of the things that I really liked what they had to say is that there is so much work to be done,. it, it could seem overwhelming, but if we start just taking small steps, right? No one person can do everything. If everyone who believes its students deserve the freedom to learn, joins together and takes action, we can reclaim the education that our students need.

For those of you who would like to become involved, please visit the show notes page on our website where you can connect with like-minded parents

TINA: And for parents who want to get engaged and you don’t see an active group of parents working in your community. It’s a great opportunity for you to start a group.

Thanks for listening. Until we meet again, keep Educating from the Heart.

 

Aurora Gonzalez: If you enjoy our podcast, ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe on our website@feaweb.org/EducatingFromTheHeart. Send your comments and feedback to heart@floridaea.org. Again, that’s heart@floridaea.org. Or you can leave a voicemail at 850-201-3384   

Sharon: Educating from the Heart is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators  

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