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A lot is happening in Florida education. These are some of the changes kids will see

Lawmakers, teachers, school board members and parents gather for a town hall meeting on new Florida curriculum standards for Black history on Thursday in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Daniel Kozin
Lawmakers, teachers, school board members and parents gather for a town hall meeting on new Florida curriculum standards for Black history on Thursday in Miami Gardens, Fla.

The Florida education system has been in the spotlight lately as Gov. Ron DeSantis banned diversity and inclusion programsat public, postsecondary institutions, and the state's board of education approved a controversial social studies curriculum.

Now, as Florida students are beginning to go back to school, here are some other changes they will face.

Videos promoting conservative values

The Florida Board of Education approved the use of PragerU Kids videos to be shown in K-12 schools in late July, according to local news reports.

Named after conservative radio host Dennis Prager, Prager University Foundation is a nonprofit organization that says it makes videos that "promote American values," calling them "a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education." It is not a university.

In regard to U.S. colonization, historian Jeff Fynn-Paul says in a video titled "Are We Living on Stolen Land?" that no piece of land belongs to a single group of people indefinitely and finishes the video by asking "who wants to talk about" the morality of conquest?

Another video shows author Andrew Klavan calling feminism a "mean-spirited, small minded and oppressive philosophy."

Yet another video has been shared widely online because it depicts slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass saying that while slavery was wrong and evil, it was a compromise the Founding Fathers had to make to "achieve something great."

Jessica Wright, a former teacher and the vice president of the nonprofit Florida Freedom to Read Project, says contracts allow teachers to incorporate the videos into their curriculum even if their district does not recommend them.

"A lot of educators who have a traditional education background, or they've been in the profession for a long time, they're going to be able to recognize in those materials that PragerU is representing what we would refer to as a logical fallacy, meaning the material that you're reading or listening to might sound like it makes sense," she told WUSF. "But if you are educated on that topic, you would know that they came to a conclusion that's not based on fact."

Wright says the best thing parents can do for their children is to be involved in their education. She urges them to ask teachers if PragerU videos will be used and ask for an alternate assignment if they disapprove of the content.

Increased income limit for private school vouchers

The income threshold for students to receive vouchers for private schools is changing, making more students eligible.

Previously, students could receive state-funded scholarships to go to private schools if they were children of military or law enforcement members, foster children or if their household income did not exceed 375% of the federal poverty level. Now, all Florida residents in K-12 are eligible, regardless of their household income.

The vouchers, known as the Florida Tax Credit (FTC) and Family Empowerment Scholarship for Education Options (FES-EO), can be used for private school tuition, transportation to a private school, books, standardized test costs or tuition at a postsecondary institution.

Foster children and children with household incomes less than 185% of the federal poverty level will receive first priority to the vouchers, while children whose household income is between 185% and 400% of the federal poverty level will get second priority.

Students can receive no more than $24,000 for the FTC and FES-EO programs, while there is a $50,000 cap for the FES program for students with disabilities, such as autism and cerebral palsy and those who are deaf and visually impaired.

There have been concerns that giving out more private school vouchers could lead to lower enrollment in public schools, and hence, less funding for them.

Patrick Gibbons is the manager of policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students, a nonprofit that administers the scholarships.

He says students who receive the vouchers are more likely to get a bachelor's degree than public school students and make learning improvements comparable to students from all income levels nationally, citing a study by the Urban Institute.

"Additionally, lower income public schools near private schools also tend to see boosts in academic achievement and reduction in absenteeism and suspensions," he said, pointing to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Parents have to sign off on nicknames

Parents in Florida have begun receiving forms to give consent for a child to be called any other name besides the one on their birth certificate, a stipulation under the state's Parental Rights in Education law, which critics call the "Don't Say Gay" law.

Teachers are also not allowed to call a student by their preferred pronouns.

Parents like Jennifer Devine and Jen Cousins say they filled out the forms by saying their children could go by whatever name they felt comfortable using.

"My response was anything she so chooses, because she is an independent individual and not a damn object," Devine said.

Cousins, who has four children in Orange County schools, including one who is nonbinary, said the change is an attack on LGBTQ+ kids.

"Does it just take one bad person in a school to say, 'Hey, I heard them using their nickname today,' or, you know, go report somebody?" Cousins said. "Nobody knows."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 13, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story said HB1 was amended to cap income eligibility for private school vouchers at 400% of the federal poverty level. The amendment eliminated income caps.
Ayana Archie
[Copyright 2024 NPR]