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'Don't Say Gay bill' could worsen Duval's teacher shortage, critics say

Florida Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls, rear left, addresses a legislative session, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
Florida Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls addresses a legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Tallahassee.

A proposal many are calling the 'Don’t Say Gay bill' is advancing in the Florida Legislature, and critics say it could worsen Duval's teacher shortage. But Duval School Board members are staying silent about the proposals.

The bill would block teachers from encouraging talk about sexual orientation or gender identity in elementary schools or in a way that’s not “age-appropriate” for any grade level — and would allow parents to sue if they thought the school had done so.

Critics are also concerned that language in the bill could force schools to out LGBTQ kids to their parents.

The proposal is one of a group of bills up for consideration that limit what kids can learn. One proposal limits how districts can teach about racism; another would require all school books to be approved by a state-trained media specialist and get vetted at public hearings.  

Rachael Tutwiler Fortune, president of Jacksonville’s Public Education Fund, told WJCT's First Coast Connect she’s worried these laws will worsen Duval County’s teacher shortage. 

"We really have to ask ourselves if that's the kind of environment teachers would want to be in," Fortune said. "Here in Duval County we are faced right now with the largest teacher shortage that we've had in the past five years. I think this is just an added layer of complexity when it comes to recruiting, supporting and retaining those talented teachers."

As of Wednesday, more than 200 jobs for teachers were posted on Duval Schools' career website.

Florida's education association is elevating the same concerns about teacher shortages during the legislative session.

"The most important issue for the Legislature to address this session is the teacher and staff shortage," Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, wrote in a statement. "The shortage has been driven in part by policy that has limited educators' freedom to teach."

The Republican sponsors of the bills say they’re aimed at protecting parental rights — the same justification the state used to ban student mask mandates during the pandemic. 

At that time, Duval County filed a legal challenge over local control. Over the latest bills, the Duval County School Board has remained largely silent.

School Board members "typically don’t address pending bills or proposals that arise in Tallahassee during this time of year," the district's chief of marketing, Tracy Pierce, said in a emailed response to questions from WJCT News.

"Once proposed legislation is final and signed into law, we would take appropriate steps to comply and would then be able to address questions about the impact of successful legislation on the district," Pierce wrote.

"We are watching everything closely and will be prepared to adapt and respond if these proposals become law," Pierce wrote.

The so-called 'Don't Say Gay' bill and a bill to remove school board member salaries and increase oversight of books in schools have both passed the House education committee and are awaiting further committee approval before going to full House vote.

Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.