"It is basically compiling (in law) for the parents to be involved with their children, that (they) know they have rights..."
A Senate panel on Monday narrowly backed a proposal to allow parents to keep their children out of class on days when subjects they may disagree with are taught — including evolution, sex education and human influence on climate.
The bill (SB 1634) — filed by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland — cleared the Senate Education Committee on a party-line 3-2 vote. It has one more committee to go before it can be debated on the Senate floor.
Stargel told the panel her bill will ensure parents have a fundamental right to "direct the upbringing, education and care of their children."
“There’s this impression out there if a parent isn’t parenting in a way that somebody believes they should, (then) they should be removed and replaced by the state,” Stargel said.
She argued, however, that the bill does not accord parents’ any rights they don’t already have. Rather, it requires those rights be spelled out in state law, especially by school districts.
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Groups like Focus on Family, Florida Right to Life and the Florida Freedom Alliance said the measure clarifies the law, saying in one place what rights parents have and what to expect when the government interacts with their children.
Opponents countered that the bill is too broad and overreaches to the point where it could pose problems for students wrestling with their sexuality or have to deal with abusive parents.
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach, led the opposition when the committee debated the bill. Berman zeroed in on the proposal’s language that schools must share “important information” with parents. She questioned whether that could include what a student confides to a counselor, teacher, or nurse.
“What is 'important information'? Who is going to decide that?” Berman asked.
“Children who are in at-risk situations often use school personnel as their safety net ... I worry that this is going to take the safety net away from these students and be harmful for at-risk students,” she added.
The bill contains a legislative finding that it is a fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their child. It also establishes procedures for parents to be notified of information regarding the health and well-being of a student.
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And it requires school districts to develop a process for withdrawing the child from the classroom when course material is used that parents think “may be based on beliefs regarding morality, sex and religion or the belief that the materials … are harmful.”
Similar measures have been debated in Colorado, Oklahoma and Ontario during the past year.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, wondered out loud about why such a bill is needed. He said the discussion shows how far society has “slipped from the reality” that children are minors and that parents are in charge of how they are raised.
“There are a lot of people (who) think the educational model should be different, and that it has the authority to take over and decide what is best for all children (and to) indoctrinate them as the same," Baxley said. "I don’t think so.”
“These children do not belong to the state,” Baxley added, uncharacteristically raising his voice. “They belong to these families."
After Baxley spoke, Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former high school principal and school superintendent, told the committee the procedures and safeguards Stargel proposes are already in place.
Montford echoed the comments of opponents who said “the unintended consequences” of the bill may prevent students who wrestled with mental health and other issues from seeking counsel from school staff.
But Stargel, in her closing statement, said all she was trying to do was clarify what rights parents have and establish procedures to safeguard what they think are in their child’s best interest.
“This bill is not a huge departure from what we have in law," she said. "It is basically compiling together (in law) for the parents to be involved with their children, that parents know they have rights, and parents have the ability to govern their children in a way they feel is best.”
A House companion is scheduled for debate in the Judiciary Committee Tuesday.
Monday's vote tally
Voted for the bill
Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala
David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs
Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland
Voted against the bill
Lori Berman, D-Delray Beach
Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee
Did not vote
Janet Cruz, D-Tampa
Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah
Keith Perry, R-Gainesville
Writer James Call can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @CallTallahassee.
This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.