- This year, a new law in Florida requires that all books in public schools be vetted for children.
- High school social studies teacher Don Falls said he covered up his books to comply with the law.
- He shared with Insider an account of what it’s like to be an educator in Florida right now.
Insider’s Yelena Dzhanova spoke to Don Falls, who teaches high school social studies in Manatee County, Florida. The district recently began implementing a new Florida law requiring all books in a public school to be vetted by a trained media specialist. Many teachers, including Falls, chose to cover un-vetted books in their classrooms rather than remove them.
Falls is lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over the Stop WOKE Act, which was passed in 2022 to “fight back against woke indoctrination.” Falls hopes to block the law on first amendment grounds.
The Stop WOKE Act is one of several laws passed recently aiming to restrict teaching on race and gender in Florida. Earlier this month, DeSantis also blocked the teaching of AP African American history in the state.
Falls said the new legislation makes it harder to teach, and that Florida may lose educators as a result.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
This year I’m teaching government and economics. I’ve taught just about every subject in social studies over the course of my 38-year career. I love teaching. And I love it every day.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis openly said in his swearing-in inauguration that this is the state where woke goes to die. And so he has made it his goal to do everything he can to stop what he perceives as a woke ideology that’s prevalent, particularly in schools.
It’s all fabricated. If you know anything about education, you know that that doesn’t really exist on any scale and in schools, especially in Florida. But that’s what he campaigned on. That’s his base, and so he has continued to push those things.
The latest change is a sweeping act of legislation that requires all public schools to go through a vetting process for their books. The books have to be reviewed by a trained media specialist or librarian to make sure they’re appropriate for children.
So, last week, I, an educator of Manatee High School in Bradenton, Florida, got a memo that gave me three choices: I could pack up all the books from my classroom, cover them up, or run them through their vetting process.
If I chose to go through with the last option, I’d have to get approval for them to remain on my classroom shelves.
We have a database called Destiny that marks the books that have already been vetted and approved. Some of my books have gone through that process.
But if it happens to be a book that hasn’t yet been vetted or approved, then I can’t give it to the kid, which is a real shame because the whole purpose of education is to embrace knowledge. To pull kids to knowledge, to get them to read, to get them to think. And it’s very, very sad.
I have a couple hundred books in my room. Former students to this day tell me that they always loved coming to my classroom because I had bookshelf after bookshelf after bookshelf of great literature, history books, government books — almost anything kids wanted.
I have everything from biographies of presidents to books on economics to books on whatever. I have up here a 35-volume set of all of Voltaire’s works. I can tell you already that, with maybe the exception of Candide, none of those books are in the system. Now, how often would a kid want something out there? Not that often.
But the point is that it would take me weeks, probably, to have to go through the process of trying to vet all of these books and get them in the system. So to me, this is just Big Brother looking over our shoulders, and fundamentally a violation of our first amendment right, right to free speech, and students’ first amendment rights of free speech.
So I took the option of just covering them up. I took rolls of chart paper and taped them together to hide the books on the shelves. On Thursday, we got a follow-up that we don’t have to cover them up anymore. But we can’t let the kids get them. We can’t give them out to the kids and we can’t let kids read them. So I haven’t taken my paper down. It’s still up.
If I chose not to comply with the memo, I would have been reprimanded, which, frankly, doesn’t really bother me. But the State Board of Education has made violation of this a third-degree felony. I would hope that the state would not actually go that far, though.
I made a little sign that I taped up on the chart paper that says “Closed by order of the governor.” It’s a little dig, and that drew a laugh from some of my students. So, at the end of the day, I felt it was actually a stronger statement to cover the books up than to defy the order.
The attack on education is demoralizing for a lot of teachers. I would say the level of morale of teachers in the 38 years that I’ve been doing this is probably as low as I’ve ever seen it. Younger teachers especially are feeling the blow because they’re scared that they will not get hired back if they run amiss of the governor’s office.
This process is an unnecessary distraction from what we all should be doing. It’s extra time for teachers to have to deal with stuff like this.
The chart paper is still up, and I might take it down next week. When kids walk in my room and they see this chart paper covering the bookcases, they just think it’s funny. And so I don’t think it’s quite sunk in exactly what it is that is going on. But they’re also disgusted. They just kind of shake their heads. They can’t understand why anybody would prevent them from accessing a book.
The great irony is that this week was Literacy Week here at the school. So we’re at literacy week in a week that we have to cover up books.
I love teaching, and I can’t imagine myself anywhere else.
I guess I could look at working in a private school. But Manatee High School, I went here. My children and my wife went here. I teach here. This is my community and I’m not going to let some ideologue who’s in the governor’s office force me out of what I love doing.
If I could meet DeSantis face-to-face, I’d ask him if he understands the ramifications of some of his actions. I’d ask him if these ramifications are worth the political points that he might gain. I would ask him to think about the impact of this on teachers, students, and classrooms. I’d ask him to realize that he’s making the educational process more difficult for everybody, and he’s discouraging out-of-state educators from choosing to teach in Florida.
A kid on Wednesday came up to me and told me he was interested in a presidential biography. He asked me to make a recommendation, and I led him to a colleague’s classroom next door because he’s got a better selection of those. Even though we’re not supposed to, we gave the kid a couple of biographies. So basically we ignored the whole thing because this kid wanted to read.
So if a kid comes to me and wants a book, I’m going to make sure the kid gets a book.