April 18, 2024

After a Miami school drew attention for requiring parental approval before students could participate in a book-reading activity for Black History Month, Florida education officials went on the offensive, admonishing the principal and accusing her of engaging in “nothing more than a political ploy.”

The spat between the state and local school officials spiraled after a social media user on Monday shared a photo of a form requesting permission for students to “participate and listen to a book written by an African American.” The form described the guests that could attend as “fireman/doctor/artist,” but did not specify the book or author in question.

“I had to give permission for this or else my child would not participate???” the user who went by the name Chuck Walter, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. Local media organizations connected the slip to Coral Way K-8 Center in Miami. The Herald couldn’t reach Walter for comment.

Coral Way staff sent those forms home because the school district’s attorney’s office determined that in order to comply with the Parental Rights in Education law, guest speakers require parental permission forms, said the district’s chief academic officer, Lourdes Diaz, at a Miami-Dade School Board meeting Wednesday.

But state officials criticized the move, saying the policy is an “absurd” interpretation of a state rule that they say is perpetuating a “hoax” that students in Florida need permission to learn about Black history.

Furthermore, at a press conference Thursday, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz and Gov. Ron DeSantis singled out the school as an example of how some local school officials have “politicized” state laws that they say are meant to empower parents to have more control over what their students learn in school.

But the laws have led many schools to scramble as they try to make sure they are in compliance with some of the state board’s regulations on classroom instruction. In Miami-Dade County, the district adopted a mass permission slip policy that has led to students needing parental approval before hearing guest speakers on subjects like African American history and the Holocaust. In Seminole County, parents have also been asked to sign permission slips for participation in Black History Month, according to a copy obtained and reviewed by the Miami Herald.

Viral post leads to letter

Florida education officials zeroed in on the issue of permission slips after Walter’s post on X garnered about 13 million views, 16,000 likes and nearly 4,000 reposts — and sparked ire among state officials.

DeSantis publicly commented on the matter for the first time at a press conference on Thursday.

“You had this incident in Miami, where there was this permission slip thing. It was absurd,” he said. “The State Board immediately wrote a letter to the principal to say knock it off, stop with the nonsense.”

The Herald got a copy of the undated letter that DeSantis referenced. Ben Gibson, the chair of the State Board of Education, sent it to Coral Way’s principal, Barbara Martin. The Herald couldn’t reach Martin for comment.

In the missive, Gibson said that at the beginning of the 2024-25 school year, his board implemented a new “common-sense” rule “to further strengthen parental rights in education.” He said it requires school districts to “develop procedures” to communicate to parents the specific details on extracurricular activities, like the event’s nature, date and location, so they can decide whether to send their kids or not.

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However, Gibson said that the book-reading activity at Coral Way fell under the “routine curricular activities” and didn’t require parental permission.

“Obviously, it is wrong to interpret the rule to require parental permission for a student to receive ordinary instruction, including on subjects required by state law and Department rule. In fact, I am not aware of any school in the state that has interpreted the rule in this way,” he said. “This should be obvious on its face, and therefore, those providing guidance to you and your school are either grossly misinterpreting the rule or simply engaged in nothing more than a political ploy.”

Gibson copied Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Jose Dotres on the letter and asked him to “immediately review this matter and take appropriate action.” He also asked the principal to update the procedure to avoid “unnecessarily asking parents to grant permission where the student is simply engaged in regular on-campus learning.”

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School district asks for clarity

Commissioner Diaz also criticized the Coral Way incident, calling it a “hoax” earlier this week.

“Florida does not require a permission slip to teach African American history or to celebrate Black History Month,” he wrote Tuesday on X. “Any school that does this is completely in the wrong.”

Elmo Lugo, a Miami-Dade Public Schools spokesman, told the Herald on Wednesday that the event description on the form likely caused the issue. He didn’t immediately respond to an additional request for comment Thursday about the state board’s letter.

“We realize that the description of the event may have caused confusion, and we are working with our schools to reemphasize the importance of clarity for parents in describing activities/events that would require parental permission,” Lugo said. “However, in compliance with State Law, permission slips were sent home because guest speakers would participate during a school-authorized education-related activity.”

READ MORE: Have you or your child recently left a South Florida public school? Tell us why

Lourdes Diaz at the School Board meeting also emphasized that the district uses the forms to comply with the new Parental in Education Law, but clarified that students learn about Black history all year round.

Also at the meeting, Board Member Steve Gallon III said he’s gotten tagged on different forms, which he described as “hot and heavy,” like Coral Way’s on social media, and said the controversy needs to stop.

“Those forms are being represented for what they’re not,” he said. “We have to follow the law … but we need to have clarity around our interpretation that subsequently leads to our implementation. If there’s some gap between our interpretation and what the intent is, I think we need to deal with that.”

“We need some clarity sooner rather than later,” he added.