Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. August 16, 2022.

Editorial: Board of Ed must make vague ‘parental rights’ law clear

With Florida having opened the school year facing an unprecedented teacher shortage, the Board of Education meets today for the purpose of driving teachers out of Florida.

Of course, that isn’t the stated purpose. The agenda item is the start of deciding how to carry out what supporters call the Parental Rights in Education law and critics call the “don’t say gay” law.

But the law will needlessly threaten teachers by subjecting them to legal liability for even an offhand remark. They will harm LGBTQ students for whom a teacher is the only person they can trust.

House Bill 1557 states, “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

What does that mean for teachers?

In June, a Florida Department of Education official told school superintendents that, for now, the rule applies only to those first four grades. How helpful, since no Republican from Gov. DeSantis on down has presented evidence that teachers in those early grades have been giving such “instruction.”

The seven-member board first must decide on the system for appointing a special magistrate to deal with alleged violations of the law. Wednesday’s meeting begins at 10:45 a.m. and will be held in Pensacola. The full agenda is online, and the meeting will be broadcast live on The Florida Channel. The agency’s press office did not respond to multiple requests for information.

The Florida Education Association, which represents teachers and opposed the law, said the board then must deal with the very basics of the law. Key decisions will follow this first one.

Examples: What does “instruction” mean? Can a teacher assign a certain book? What if an eighth-grader, unprompted, asks about gender dysphoria? What is “age-appropriate?” What is “developmentally appropriate?”

The board’s interpretation especially matters because the law allows parents to sue school districts if the parents believe that a teacher has violated the law and administrators have “not resolved” the complaint.

The case then would go to a special magistrate who could award parents damages and attorneys’ fees. Districts would pay all costs for these hearings and would have to designate one person for handling complaints.

Based on our reading of the law and the rule, there is no standard for making such complaints. There also is no standard for determining whether a district has successfully resolved a parent’s complaint.

For districts, that could be a hassle. For teachers, it could be much worse.

The union points out that teachers hired after 2011 have “nonexistent” tenure protection. Violations could “expose teachers to proceedings to suspend or revoke” their certificates. Administrators could consider violations “gross insubordination” and thus a firing offense.

To those who might consider such scenarios alarmist, consider that DeSantis – who claims to oppose indoctrination – wants to create thought police for professors at Florida’s public universities. He punished Disney for opposing the “don’t say gay” law, even if that support came late.

And DeSantis has made clear that he is no ally of teachers. In response to that teacher shortage, the state is allowing military veterans with very little relevant training to get temporary certification.

In response to criticism, DeSantis said, “You give me somebody who has four years of experience as a Devil Dog (a slang term for Marines) 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.”

Giving career professionals a shortcut so they can teach a specific course in high school makes sense. Putting an untrained person from any field all day in an elementary school classroom makes little sense. The governor’s comment was a gratuitous – but politically aimed – disparagement of teachers.

We understand the politics. The governor appoints the seven board members. DeSantis championed the law, claiming that it will protect students from “indoctrination” that he can’t prove happens. He wants strict enforcement.

But the board is supposed to serve teachers and students, not the governor. The law is sloppily written. Strict enforcement of a vague law would carry high risk.

Schools must notify parents “if there is a change in the student’s services or monitoring related to the student’s mental, emotional or physical well-being and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.”

What does that mean? What if a student approaches a teacher about one issue and then brings up another? Will teachers simply shut down any such conversations for fear of a parent taking them to court?

Broward County lacked about 200 teachers as the year approached. Palm Beach County had been down 400. Osceola County has hired 30 teachers from Asia and another 30 from South America.

Florida didn’t need this law. Teachers and students need the Board of Education to give them some clarity and compassion.

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Tampa Bay Times. August 17, 2022.

Editorial: Florida’s bipartisan support for gun control

That support hasn’t translated into much action.

So here’s something you might not have thought possible: In Florida, at least, Republicans and Democrats actually agree on a number of gun control measures that could significantly reduce the appalling death toll in our streets, schools and homes.

In a statewide survey done last month, large majorities in both parties told researchers they support universal background checks and a mandatory waiting period for anyone trying to purchase a weapon. They said a person convicted of domestic abuse should be prohibited from buying a firearm. And anyone under the age of 21, they said, should not be able to buy a gun classified as an “assault weapon.”

The real question is whether their opinion matters. Just because an overwhelming majority of Floridians apparently support changes that would save lives doesn’t mean our elected officials have the political courage to make them happen.

It really shouldn’t be this hard. This country has been drowning in guns forever, translating directly into one of the highest murder rates in the world. And it’s getting worse.

More Americans died of gun-related injuries in 2020 than in any year on record, according to the Pew Research Center, which analyzed the most recent federal data. The sad tally includes a record number of murders using guns, as well as a near-record number of gun-related suicides.

Florida, unfortunately, has felt more pain than most states. Forty-nine people were killed at the Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando six years ago. In 2018, another 17 people were murdered — many of them students — when a former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Both of those mass slaughters were facilitated by the shooters’ easy access to weapons.

Parkland was so unnerving it spurred something unusual in Florida — bipartisan legislation. Lawmakers approved a “red flag” law allowing authorities to get court orders to temporarily ban the purchase and ownership of a gun by people deemed a threat. It has been used nearly 6,000 times since its passage four years ago.

The law shows change isn’t impossible, and last month’s survey of 600 Floridians by researchers at the University of South Florida and Florida International University shows there is still plenty of common ground to plow.

More than 92 percent of the people surveyed favor universal background checks for all firearm purchases. Almost 86 percent want to require a license to purchase guns classified as assault weapons. A similar percentage want a mandatory waiting period for firearm purchases. The people surveyed are a representative sample of Democrats, Republicans and independents, pulled from every part of the state.

Opponents to such commonsense measures use familiar arguments. They attack universal background checks as an invasion of privacy. Mandatory waiting periods, according to the National Rifle Association, only burden law-abiding gun owners without changing how or when criminals obtain firearms. Never mind that police say waiting periods give them time to do a proper check. Or that mental health experts say there is plenty of evidence they reduce suicides.

It’s important to remember what the poll shows us. While opponents of sensible gun control have deep pockets and a big voice, they are a decided minority. Big majorities of Republicans, independents and Democrats all favor sensible gun measures. If only our elected officials were paying attention.

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Palm Beach Post. August 17, 2022.

Editorial: Open-burning, broken promises; Nikki Fried fails to stand up to Big Sugar

When open burning of sugar cane casts a pall over the minority communities of The Glades, it’s easy to identify the cause in the broadest terms: sugar growers reaping extra millions by avoiding greener harvesting methods, enabled by a Tallahassee political culture on a perpetual sugar high from industry campaign contributions.

But behind those broad, generic bad actors are individuals who make promises to attain public office and then neglect the grassroots constituents they pledge to protect. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, it turns out, is one of those individuals.

As a Palm Beach Post investigation published last week revealed, Fried sought and won the trust of Glades residents when running for Ag commissioner in 2018, then did virtually nothing to save them from the “Black Snow” of cane fields burning at their doorsteps half the year.

This week Fried, a Democratic candidate for governor, compounded that broken promise by alleging untruthfully in a public forum that the Post journalists who painstakingly called her out on it were paid off by The Sierra Club. Asked for proof, she had none. In the most Trumpian of responses, she told Politico’s Gary Fineout: “It’s something I’ve heard.”

Residents of The Glades, a collection of some of the poorest minority communities in the United States, have waited for years to get someone to pay attention to their plight. The thick clouds steal over their neighborhoods from the adjacent fields where many work, forcing them indoors and sending young and old to clinics for respiratory ailments, as the Post and ProPublica spelled out in an earlier investigative project that was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting.

The latest article, by staff writers Antigone Barton and Hannah Morse, documented Fried’s promises when she was running for Agriculture Commissioner, her subsequent failure to effect any substantive change while in office, and sadly but predictably, her willingness to accept sizeable campaign donations from the very sugar interests she promised to crack down on.

Fried had plenty of excuses, some of which she went over in a meeting with the Post’s Editorial Board in April. She didn’t have the power to force the issue, as the lone Democrat on the Florida Cabinet, she said. She tried to convince the sugar companies to switch to hemp-growing instead (she’d been a lobbyist for marijuana legalization), she added.

This is not a partisan issue, it’s a critical health and environmental issue. Republicans who take pleasure in seeing a Democratic candidate under fire in this instance would do well to remember that sugar cane ashes have snowed on The Glades throughout Gov. Ron DeSantis’ term, for two terms when now-Sen. Rick Scott was governor before him and through a succession of Republican and Democratic leaders long before that, including Fried’s current Democratic primary opponent, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. Generations of Glades residents have inhaled campaign promises, only to be forced to keep filling their lungs with the poisons spread by open burning, decade upon decade.

Wealthy, white Wellington complains? We won’t burn when the wind blows east. Problem solved. Concern about smoke clouding predominately white Clewiston? We’ll use green harvesting methods there. Problem solved. But when the humble Black and brown-skinned residents of The Glades call out for help? They get smoke and mirrors.

Fried took it one step farther. Confronted on the campaign trail with a well-documented report of the Agriculture Commissioner’s failure to rein-in Big Ag, and of her pocketing its contributions like so many before her, she rushed to social media to lash out at The Palm Beach Post reporters and editors with falsehoods about payoffs. That was just more smoke and mirrors: She promised proof, came up with none, then said she hoped what she “heard” about that wasn’t true. All the while, she has not demonstrated a single error in the reporting.

All Nikki Fried had to do was to make an honest, sustained effort to end open-burning and get sugar companies to adopt the same green harvesting practices that other countries and states require. It’s not an easy task and many before her failed. But she could have tried. Instead she took the money and ran for governor.

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