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Madison v. DeSantis | Insight

Florida’s new parental rights bill prohibits discussion of LGBT issues in the classroom. It’s going to cause chaos for the state’s school system.

The Briefing: A culture-war-worthy education bill.

  • Florida's controversial education bill is almost law
  • What's the disagreement?
    • The bill aims to prohibit discussion sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms, increase parental involvement in curriculum-setting
    • Proponents like the idea of greater parental involvement and the elimination of inappropriate sexual topics
    • Detractors worry about discrimination and censorship as well as vague language that could invite frivolous lawsuits
  • Why is education so politicized these days?

The Big Question: How should parents be involved in education?

It’s little wonder Republicans have fixated on education the way they have. Their rhetoric, which plants them firmly with parents and against child sexualization, is nearly unimpeachable, whether or not the allegations they’ve leveled against schools are true.

The thing is, nobody—really, nobody in any serious sense—is barring parents from being involved in public education. We actually have really good data about this from the Department of Education! Here are their findings about parental involvement opportunities and participation rates, from a survey of principals across the country.

Essentially every school in the country offers a variety of opportunities for parental involvement. In primary school, most parents seem pretty committed, attending open houses, conferences, and signing compacts in strong numbers. After primary school, though, parental interest drops off dramatically for any commitment beyond signing a paper. Unsurprisingly, participation in budget, governance, and volunteering is low across the board.

But here’s the kicker. Almost nobody seems to participate in instructional issues. What would that entail? “Involvement in school instructional issues includes planning classroom learning activities and providing feedback on curriculum.” These are the very issues Republicans in Florida claim parents are being denied involvement in. Maybe with the increased national focus on educational issues, more parents will show up. It seems like they’ll be more than welcome to at the vast majority of public schools already.

Despite this, the bill expands parental involvement opportunities in two ways. First, it prohibits any policy of confidentiality between students and teachers or school employees. Second, it empowers parents to bring lawsuits against school districts, if they feel a school has violated the provisions of the bill. As it turns out, contradictory language between the bill’s statement of purpose and body text may open schools to a broadside of legal action.

The question at hand, then, isn’t whether parents should be involved. There’s no dispute over that. It’s how they should be involved, precisely.

The Theory: Refining and enlarging opinions.

Before the United States were united, when the Constitution was up for debate and hadn’t yet been ratified, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (okay, and John Jay) took up the task of publicly defending it: The Federalist Papers.

In his first two essays, Federalist 10 and 14, Madison explains the rationale for a republican form of government over a democratic one. If you’d like a more detailed (and very interesting) consideration, see Harry’s recent piece, but Madison summarizes the differences between the two as follows. “In a democracy, the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic, they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.”

Madison’s argument is simple. “Pure” or direct democracy can only be practiced in small groups, and those are easy for wicked types to craft a majority within. Even when not captured by bad actors, democracies remain chaotic and poorly suited to decisions requiring sophistication or long-term thinking.

Republicanism, by delegating decisions to “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country,” may “refine and enlarge the public views.” Representation both streamlines and moderates politics.

The Takeaway: Counterproductive and frivolous.

To apply Madison’s theories to this issue, it's important to understand the bill’s design.

Sometimes legislators pass bills with vague language, leaving bureaucracies with the responsibility of hammering out those vagaries into precise, consistent rules.

Florida’s bill is different. It gives public schools contradictory directions in its preamble (or statement of purpose) and its body. In one place it prohibits all discussion of LGBT topics, while in another merely instruction. The bill is designed to put schools in a bind and open them up to lawsuits. That shouldn’t be all that surprising, given how the preamble concludes by empowering parents to take such action.

Republicanism is meant to filter the public’s opinions and desires through regular elections. That’s for good reason, as Madison lays out, but this bill will undermine representative government in Florida. No longer will the public school bureaucracy be ultimately accountable to the public through school board and other state-wide elections. Instead, schools will be subject to the scrutiny of any parent willing to file a lawsuit over some curricular complaint.

Schools and teachers will have two options. Either take the safe route and avoid any mention of LGBT issues, or run the risk of being sued for even the slightest disagreement over the law’s interpretation. If you’re a second-grade teacher, you better be sure not to use a picture book in which the main character has same-sex parents. A fifth-grade teacher may be hesitant to explain to a student why using “gay” as an insult is wrong. Ninth-grade sex-ed instructors would do well to avoid recognizing the existence of non-heterosexual intercourse.

We don’t know exactly what will come of this bill, but one thing is clear. It invites all the disadvantages and chaos of direct democratic action that Madison and the other founders warned so strongly against, even as ample opportunities for parental involvement already exist.

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