Fifty years since he died in a plane crash trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente is still making a difference. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has pushed a number of measures to restrict what students learn, including one forcing counties to develop guidelines to “protect” students from content on issues of race and gender—and the inclusion of a young-adult biography, Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates, on one county’s list of potentially banned books has DeSantis backpedaling—nah, let’s just say lying—about what the law is meant to do.
At a Tuesday press conference in Jacksonville, the guy Donald Trump apparently calls “Meatball Ron” looked like he was simmering in his own juices. DeSantis seemed to be running away from his bigoted education agenda. Reporters pressed him about the accounts of empty shelves in libraries and classrooms around Duval County and other districts, as educators review books to see if they’re in line with the new law. First, DeSantis tried to deny what reporters had seen for themselves.
“Actually, that video, that’s just a fake narrative,” he argued. (There were multiple photos and videos of many different classrooms, Ron, not just one video.)
“They hadn’t even put the books out yet,” DeSantis insisted. “They”—school personnel—had in fact put books out; some of the photos and videos featured books still “out,” but covered up with paper and cardboard, to protect teachers from getting in trouble with books that hadn’t been vetted yet. Other shelves were cleared, but teachers told reporters they’d done it themselves so the books could be reviewed. Some of the books that weren’t “out yet” had been purchased years ago as supplemental classroom reading material, but held back while educators parsed the meaning of the new law. (More on this later.)
DeSantis accused unnamed evil forces of “trying to act like somehow we don’t want books.” (Well, actually, he named one force of evil—“the school unions”—while providing zero evidence that unions are behind the missing books. I’ve seen none either.)
“You hear people talk about felony charges” for having unauthorized books in classrooms, DeSantis scoffed. In fact, his own Department of Education confirmed to The Washington Post just weeks ago that educators who shared improper content could, yes, face felony charges. So does this missive from Duval County schools issued last month. And at a library training run by the State Board of Education to help educators conform to the new restrictions, officials told librarians to “err on the side of caution” when it comes to potentially pornographic material, which the training leaders reiterated was a third-degree felony.
Call your people, Ron. The “felony” talk is coming from inside the statehouse.
But publicity around the Clemente book’s inclusion on a list of unapproved reading apparently broke DeSantis’s spirit. The Republican commissioner of public instruction, Manny Diaz Jr., just this weekend told Duval County that it was taking too long to approve the Puerto Rican star’s biography. But now that Florida’s Stop Woke Act prohibits instruction that might unsettle white students, educators could well have paused at the book blurb: “As a right-fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he fought tough opponents—and even tougher racism—but with his unreal catches and swift feet, he earned his nickname, ‘The Great One,’” one book blurb reads. Talking about the “tougher racism” Clemente faced might provoke some white parents to complain that such books make their kids feel bad for being white—a no-no in DeSantis’s Florida.
The governor downplayed charges that the Clemente biography could be banned under the laws he’d pushed. “Come on. I mean, we know Roberto Clemente,” he said. “I mean, seriously. That’s politics. I think the school unions are involved with this. I don’t think parents are challenging that, I think they’re doing it unilaterally to try to create an issue,” DeSantis said. “Having young kids engaging in sex acts? You’re going to compare that to a biography of Roberto Clemente? Give me a break,” DeSantis said, as he walked away.
But that’s exactly what DeSantis’s spate of reactionary education laws has done, at least for now.
Here’s the most charitable explanation for DeSantis’s dissembling: Confusion over which books are appropriate, for which ages, and about who should make those decisions is not only related to new education laws he signed. It’s a problem in many places around the country. It was an issue in Florida before the latest laws.
But DeSantis’s administration seems particularly clueless about how to implement its new guidelines. While the governor has tried to insist that a new law he signed on curriculum transparency does not apply to school libraries, in fact the text of the law covers library books, and his own education department clarified that the law’s purview extends to classroom libraries, and all school media collections, from kindergarten through grade 12. In their library training workshops this year, state officials also held that the two other big education laws pushed by DeSantis, the Parental Rights in Education Act restricting teaching on gender and sexuality, and the Stop Woke law restricting instruction around race, also applied to the curriculum transparency law. So now school officials are scanning books for potentially subversive content on gender, sexuality, and race.
Duval County has become the epicenter of the confusion around what the new laws mean, for students, teachers, individual books, and classrooms. Its leaders seem to have interpreted the laws at their strictest. It’s also the county that banned—or at least failed to approve—the now-notorious Roberto Clemente biography, and mixed it up with some books DeSantis would actually like to see banned. So it’s worth looking at its process in some detail.
The Clemente book was one of roughly 180 titles the district purchased for supplemental classroom reading to promote diversity two years ago. But by the time the books arrived in the county in January of 2022, there was a spate of new, restrictive education laws proposed under DeSantis, so officials opted to wait for more guidance to approve the library additions before sending them to classroom shelves. After the curriculum transparency bill became law in July of 2022, Duval leaders said the new books were being “withheld,” pending state guidance. In September, PEN America went public with the 176 books “banned” in Duval, which annoyed local officials. “They adamantly objected to the notion they were ‘banning’ books,” notes Stephana Ferrell, a cofounder of the Florida Right to Read Project. “These books were set to roll out into classrooms,” says Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs for PEN America, the group that’s taken much guff from Duval administrators for its claim that the new portfolio of books purchased in 2021 were banned. “They were held off shelves [in Duval] for more than a year, for ‘further “review.’ When can we say the books were banned?”
By fall, Duval cleared roughly 106 of those books, held 27 back for “further review,” including the Clemente bio, and put 47 on a list to go back to the suppliers. Banned, return-to-sender, no longer wanted? You pick the term. Nobody could get an answer as to why the Clemente book needed more review, Ferrell told me.
In the end, thanks most likely to Diaz’s intervention, Clemente was waved home… to a bookshelf in Duval. (But so far no one can tell me where it’s actually available.) Most of the books ultimately banned there and elsewhere relate to gender and sexuality. Popular Information’s Judd Legum got a copy of the Duval County directive to ban a book called The Best Man, about a boy who is the ring bearer at his uncle’s wedding to another man.
Michelle DiBias, supervisor of instructional materials and media services for Duval County Public Schools, found that the book violated state pornography statutes, “is portraying sexual excitement and is damaging to students.” (Remember, that could be a third-degree felony.) DiBias concluded that the book “is not appropriate for any group of students” and should be removed “from all schools.” By contrast, Common Sense Media, which reviews books and other materials to help parents decide if they’re suitable for children and teens, said The Best Man featured “positive messages” and “positive role models” and added that the “content is tame overall.”
Duval has also banned several other books on its diversity menu—but no one can get an accurate list of them.
The district released its first list “of just over 1,300 approved books for the classroom library” on January 26, Ferrell of the Florida Freedom to Read Project told me. “Very few” of the 106 “vetted titles” cleared last fall appeared on the list. A handful of the “held for further review titles” appeared as if they had been cleared for classroom use. Meanwhile, “it seems that approvals and rejections of classroom library books are ongoing,” Ferrell said. “Any attempt to get an accurate, timely list is nearly impossible, since it requires us to go through the public records process—which takes days, weeks, and in some cases months to get an answer.”
Dim Sum for Everyone, which jumped out to me on PEN America’s list of banned books in Duval County—what could be wrong with that?—had been a substitution for an unavailable book the district had ordered, so it was sent back to the publisher. Luckily, Dumpling Soup was approved.
“What a disaster.” That’s what Julie Dashiell, a member of Florida’s Library Study Workgroup, tells me when we first connect. She was one of four parent members who, along with eight certified media specialists, reviewed the new law’s implementation. Two represented Moms for Liberty, a right-wing organization looking to use the curriculum law to restrict Florida students’ reading, a third was from another conservative Florida organization, and then there was Dashiell. “I was the token potentially progressive person,” she says.
Given how broadly the law was written, Dashiell says she felt like the working group was mostly fair in its instruction to school districts about how to implement it. But at the end of the process came slides from the Florida Department of Education reminding educators that making “pornography” available to minors is a third-degree felony, and advising them to “err on the side of caution,” she recalls, when deciding whether to approve books. The slides suggest that if one wouldn’t read the literature in question in public, then it shouldn’t be available to students.
And the right has gotten expert at finding a sexually explicit or otherwise disturbing passage in a work of literature, Dashiell says. “I gotta hand it to them—they’ve found something that works for them,” she says wryly.
Florida administrators, or media specialists where they are available, are also applying the laws’ instructions about books being “age-appropriate” to library books, Ferrell notes. Just this week, Duval County’s chief academic officer expressed sadness at her own decision to oust the book Before She Was Harriet, about the great emancipator Harriet Tubman, because the book was promoted for children as young as kindergarten, and she “felt it was not age appropriate for a student [that age] to read on his or her own,” Ferrell says. (Here it is read by the author, Lisa Cline-Ransome. You be the judge.)
“This ‘age-appropriate’ language is being used to say what is best for the majority, when libraries can and should stretch to meet individual students’ needs,” she adds.
Meanwhile, districts are now required to promote or hire certified media specialists to review all books used in classrooms and libraries. They also must submit to the state annually all “material for which the school district received an objection in the school year and the specific objections,” and all “material that was removed or discontinued as the result of an objection, by grade level and course.”
Do you remember when Republicans were the party of smaller government, looking to shrink bureaucracies? I do. But not in Ron DeSantis’s Big Government state of Florida.
Dashiell says she’s lucky enough to live in St. John’s County, which is fairly wealthy and can afford “certified media specialists.” Other counties are having to cut or repurpose staff—or just leave classroom and other library shelves bare, for now.
And it could get worse. One member of the state Library Working Group, Moms for Liberty’s Jennifer Pippin, filed a criminal complaint against a school library in her hometown of Indian River County, Fla., for not removing dozens of books its members consider “inappropriate.” (Law enforcement officials haven’t back her up, for now.) As DeSantis mocks the claims that teachers can be charged with felonies for books right-wingers deem unacceptable, Moms for Liberty is demonstrating: It can conceivably happen here. Or at least in Florida.
Obviously, Florida educators don’t need new laws to make craven decisions. Earlier this year, the principal of Palm Harbor High School banned the reading of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in advanced placement courses at the school, because it depicts a sexual assault suffered by the protagonist—and the Pinellas County School Board followed up by tossing the book out of every county classroom. Depictions of rape have become a common reason to argue against the inclusion of books in Florida. The leader of a group called “No Left Turn in Education” disrupted a Clay County School Board meeting last summer, trying to get the novel Lucky, by Alice Sebold, banned because of a rape scene.
“They are trying to sexualize and normalize deviant behavior,” he told reporters. “Sexualizing our children is grooming. It is not acceptable. It is illegal.”
The fact is, the Centers for Disease Control just released a study showing that American teen women are “engulfed” in violence and trauma. Keeping them from reading about it doesn’t seem like the best response. You might even suggest that’s “grooming.”
Dashiell tries to see the positive in the backlash to DeSantis’s moves. “We’ve got a lot more reasonable parents and students standing up,” she tells me. We’d both watched a livestream of a Pinellas County hearing on reinstating The Bluest Eye on Tuesday. It was unsuccessful, but more parents and students are turning out at meetings to oppose these laws.
Ferrell mostly agrees, but points to the way conservative parents are abusing the rights the education system already affords them. “They can choose to opt out of letting their child use the school library. Or a classroom library,” she says. “That’s parental rights in education—being an advocate for your child. But don’t decide what mine can learn.”