FEA pushes back against book ban with massive giveaway
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer
Three days after launching one of the biggest book giveaways in Florida, the Florida Education Association joined other groups that challenged a new rule on books in schools.
The Challenge is against the Florida Department of Education, questioning its authority to enforce a 2022 law that bans certain books from classrooms. The FEA teachers union was joined by the Florida Freedom to Read Project and Families for Strong Public Schools in filing the complaint that is known as an administrative legal challenge.
The suit filed last Friday contends that FDE went too far when it issued training for school librarians this year, according to a NPR report.
A few days before the challenge was filed, hundreds of people from Tallahassee and other Florida cities showed up for a book giveaway hosted by FEA. The event took place on a stretch along Adams Street that runs from Jefferson St. to College Avenue.
Both sides of the street were lined with what FEA officials said was part of a 25,000 book giveaway. The intent, said Andrew Spar, president of FEA, is to get books into the hands of children and their families.
He noted the urgency for elementary schoolchildren to learn to read, citing that 50 percent of third graders in Florida aren’t reading at grade level.
“The best way to combat that is to get books into the hands of kids,” Spar said. “They can have their own little library of brand new books at home that they can read and get excited about reading to their parents, their grandparents, their aunts, uncles, and their siblings. We want kids reading.”
During the past month, books about Hispanic and Black history have been covered up or removed from classrooms around the state.
“Kids, if they don’t see themselves in their books, they’re not going to be connected to reading,” Spar said. “They are not going to be excited about reading. They need books by diverse authors about diverse topics.”
During a 30-minute presentation on a stage that was set up directly across from City Hall, Spar was joined by two renowned authors and other educators.
Speaker also included Leon County Superintendent of Schools, Rocky Hanna, Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, and Noel Candelaria, secretary-treasurers of the National Education Association.
Politicians who are supporting the book ban should be focusing more on recruiting and retaining teachers in the state, Ingram said.
“I think the intent ultimately is to take away our public schools; not have opportunities for our young people,” he said. “When you look at how they continue to underfund our schools, how they continue to make our teachers the enemy of these politicians, how they continue to overrun our classes and they are not paying attention to the crisis we have right now.
“Teachers are walking out the door every day. We have more of a teacher deficit in our state than we’ve had in years. We can’t get people to come to Florida to teach because we don’t pay them enough and we don’t respect them at all.”
Alicia D. Williams, who wrote “Genesis Begins Again, gave away boxes of the book that made the New York Times best seller list.
Her trip to Tallahassee was to help fill the book desert, she said.
Reading could be a viable response for a bullied child, as it was for her, she said, adding books brought out a mix of emotions.
“I read book more and more,” Williams said. “Books that entertained me. Books that opened up my mind. Books that I didn’t understand and confused me and made me curious. Books that made me feel I wasn’t alone.”
Students in Florida who are being deprived certain books are in a fight of their lives, Williams said.
Sharon M. Draper, another well-known author, said she was 3 years old when she first went to the library and by age 10 she had read all of the books for elementary schoolchildren. That experienced changed her life.
“It was the thing that saved me,” she said. “Reading was the thing that made me who I was. I didn’t even know what I was doing, I just liked stories.”
Kyla Onfroy, a 10th grader at Deland High School who was in Tallahassee for the book giveaway, could relate to Draper’s experience. Onfroy, who is Black, said she was glad to see Blacks make up the majority of the crowd.
“This is a really good opportunity for kids to come and see new things; come outside and do different things,” said Onfroy. “Stuff like this doesn’t happen very often.”
Leon County elementary schoolteacher Laurel Bedford, said she is troubled by the book ban and the argument that it’s intended to remove “inappropriate” material from the classroom.
“I think it’s ridiculous. We don’t have inappropriate materials in the public schools,” said Bedford, a second grade teacher at Sealey Elementary. “He (Gov. Ron DeSantis) is creating a problem that doesn’t exist.”