After parent groups are removed from a school library lawsuit, the focus turns to cost
The Florida Education Association's lawsuit says the Florida Department of Education went beyond the scope of HB 1467 in its training, which led some districts to cover shelves.
A lawsuit brought by Florida's largest teacher's union and two parent-led groups was heard in Tallahassee earlier this month, with the plaintiffs alleging that the state Department of Education went too far in implementing a law meant to keep pornographic material out of school libraries.
It got off to a rocky start for the plaintiffs. Within the first hour, the Florida Freedom to Read Project and Families for Strong Public Schools were removed from the case, for lack of standing.
"I don't see the impact on the parents," said administrative law judge Darren Schwartz, shooting down arguments that parents couldn't donate books anymore, or were harmed because their children had access to fewer books at school.
"These organizations cannot establish that a substantial number of their members have suffered a real or immediate injury in fact, as a result of the rules. Therefore, the FFTRP and FSPS are not substantially affected by the rules," he said.
That meant the Florida Education Association was now the sole petitioner in a case that plaintiffs said overburdened school staff, restricted kids' access to books and cost districts money.
"It was incredibly disappointing because we're considered a state that protects and raises up parent voices and a parent's right to direct the education of their children," said Stephana Farrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project.
"The narrative being pushed is that a majority of parents want this censorship. However, we've actually asked the districts that allow for parental opt-outs, we asked for that data, how many parents are opting to restrict their students, and in most districts it's less than 1% of students that are being restricted by their parents," she said.
The plaintiffs allege that the rules the state issued — to comply with a 2022 curriculum transparency law known as HB 1467 —went beyond the language in the statute "by adopting an unprecedented and illogical definition of 'library media center' that must be struck down," according to legal documents.
At the bill signing in March, 2022, Governor Ron DeSantis described the law as "probably the strongest curriculum transparency law in the country," and said it would "require transparency with respect to the materials being taught in classrooms or that are available in school libraries."
But the FEA said when the Department of Education unveiled its training for school librarians months later, the scope of the law had expanded.
The training said any collection of books in a school had to be vetted by a media specialist, even those inside teachers' classrooms.
To comply, some districts closed down classroom libraries altogether, said FEA president Andrew Spar.
"What we've seen across the state, based on this rule, is teachers being told to box up books, to cover up books, to take books home that haven't been vetted by the school," said Spar.
At the hearing, the Florida Department of Education argued that the rules simply direct schools to make sure "inappropriate or pornographic books" aren't accessible to students.
"They don't require teachers close their classroom libraries while they may be cataloging the books that are in there to determine if there are any that should not be," said one of the DOE lawyers at the hearing.
"There's no deadline in the rules for them to comply. So there's absolutely nothing in the rules that would prevent a teacher from continuing to make books available to children in the classrooms."
But the plaintiffs argued that whether a deadline was listed or not, the rules being challenged are now in effect. So districts are rushing to make sure they comply — with violators risking third degree felony charges — and spending heavily to do so.
"We put forth facts as to why there are costs associated with this rule, and they very likely exceed $200,000, which is the amount that triggers a requirement for the department to do what's called a statement of estimated regulatory costs, which they didn't do here and they concluded they didn't have to," said lawyer JoAnn Kintz, representing the FEA.
Patricia Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, testified that Manatee County took books out of circulation from classroom libraries , while they checked each one.
"As we all know, time is money," Barber said, noting that principals, teachers, librarians and union representatives all faced extra work as a result.
"The district provided funding for 10 hours for each media specialist to work outside their contract hours to try to comply with this with this rule," she told the hearing.
Tania Galinanes, a library media specialist from Osceola County, also testified that teachers removed books from their classroom libraries.
There is no quick way to scan all the books, she said, and so her district is paying media specialists to work throughout the month of June, after school gets out, to catch up.
"I am sure that is additional money that they were not expecting to spend," said Galinanes.
A spokeswoman for the district confirmed the plan, but said a final cost hasn't been established yet. The FEA's legal team estimated it could cost Osceola County school district around $78,000. That's just one of 69 districts in the state.
The Department of Education maintained there was no cost associated with implementing the rules. And they questioned whether the union has enough media specialists as members to be truly affected.
"These rules impact a good number of our members," said Spar. "And here's the thing: it impacts kids."
A ruling is expected by sometime in June.