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Opinion: AP Psychology controversy exposes the lie behind Florida’s push for ‘parental rights’

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Opinion by Neil J. Young

(CNN) — Editor’s note: Neil J. Young is a historian, writer and podcaster. He is the author of “We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics” and the forthcoming “Coming Out Republican: A History of the Gay Right.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Parents in Orange County, Florida, where I grew up and attended public school, received an email late last week.

“As you may have seen in the news today,” the email read, “the Florida Department of Education has determined that under Florida Administrative Code select content cannot be taught in Florida classrooms. The College Board AP Psychology course contains such content.”

“College Board requires educators to teach the entire curriculum for an AP course for college credit consideration,” it said, “therefore AP Psychology is no longer a potential course option for Florida students to receive college credit.”

Other school districts in Florida made similar announcements. These decisions came after the College Board, which administers the Advanced Placement program, announced that the state had “effectively banned” AP Psychology because state legislation, commonly referred to as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, doesn’t permit instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity, which the College Board considers essential for completing the course.

Florida officials have countered that AP Psychology hasn’t been banned, but rather that the College Board is playing politics by telling school districts they can’t offer the course unless it’s taught in full. On Friday, Florida Department of Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. issued a statement that AP Psychology can still be offered “in its entirety in a manner that is age and developmentally appropriate,” but Florida counties are rushing to figure out what this guidance means just days before students begin the new school year.

As Florida continues to serve as a model for other conservative states looking to overhaul their public education systems, it’s vital to understand what led to the standoff over AP Psychology and what this controversy reveals about the politics of parental rights in the supposedly “free state of Florida.”

It isn’t Florida’s first scuffle with the College Board. Earlier this year, the state banned AP African American studies from its public schools after Republican lawmakers asserted the course taught critical race theory. That decision led the College Board to revise its AP African American studies’ curriculum, but the changes didn’t appease Florida nor did it stop several other states from putting the course under review.

In the current fight over AP Psychology, the College Board has indicated it doesn’t plan to negotiate with Florida. Some Republican lawmakers in Florida have predictably responded by accusing the College Board of being “so committed to wokeism” that it is willing to sacrifice the course rather than adjust it to comply with Florida’s rules.

That AP Psychology has even been caught in the crosshairs of the “Don’t Say Gay” law may surprise many Florida parents. When the controversial legislation, officially titled the Parental Rights in Education Act, was first proposed in 2022, it only pertained to classroom instruction for students in kindergarten through third grade.

That narrow designation helped inoculate the bill against much of the criticism directed at it. What normal person would think discussions of sexuality were appropriate for second graders, the bill’s defenders liked to dramatically ask. “It’s basically saying for our younger students, do you really want them being taught about sex?” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis contended, a rationale that struck some Americans, no matter their politics, as reasonable.

Yet critics recognized that Florida’s restrictive legislation wasn’t really intended for only its youngest students. Instead, as some educators and LGBTQ activists contended, it was the opening wedge of a broader assault on LGBTQ rights and public education in the state.

In April, that plan became clearer when the Florida State Board of Education expanded its ban on instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity through the 12th grade. The bill sold to Florida voters as a sensible measure to ensure kindergartners wouldn’t hear about sex in the classroom would now prevent high school seniors from being able to learn about the psychobiological basis of human sexuality — and possibly also from earning college credit for such coursework.

In light of all the talk in Florida — and around the country — that parents should have a greater say over their children’s education, it’s worth noting that the AP Psychology class apparently has generated little objections in Florida in the past. Quite the opposite. It was the fifth most popular AP course in the state in 2021. For the 2023-2024 school year, about 30,000 Florida students planned on taking the class.

Given both AP Psychology’s popularity and its uncontroversial reputation in the state, the dust-up over the course exposes the lie of the parental rights discourse in Florida and elsewhere. Some Florida parents have voiced their anger that the course may be canceled, just as they have protested the ban on AP African American studies. Rather than empowering parents, Florida’s overreaching legislation always seemed to be just a play for power by the state’s Republican lawmakers and, especially, a publicity stunt by a small-minded governor who wants to be the next president.

Not that long ago, the lure of Florida for some Americans who moved there during the Covid-19 pandemic was the promise of open schools — the chance for children to continue their education without delayed openings, canceled days, endless Zoom sessions and, in most districts, even mask requirements.

Yet with more Florida parents feeling frustrated that their kids can’t take the courses they want, many may realize that “open schools” don’t matter much when state officials are so bent on closing the curriculum.

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