Dictionary book

Florida district refuses dictionary donations as it navigates new book law

A school district in southwest Florida has made headlines for refusing a dictionary donation due to a freeze on new books in its libraries and classrooms.

This freeze is temporarily in place while officials navigate a new state law that gives parents more control over the selection of reading and teaching materials in schools.

HB 1467 went into effect in early July, several months after it was approved by state lawmakers. Among other provisions, it revises the selection requirements for school reading materials and limits the terms of school board members. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has characterized it as part of his effort to fight “indoctrination” in schools, while Democratic critics denounce it as censorship and unconstitutional.

The changing guidelines pose a logistical challenge for school districts, many of which have already started the new school year and are scrambling to iron out compliance and new best practices.

This was the case in Sarasota, where the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports that hundreds of dictionaries are gathering dust after district officials refused a donation from a Rotary club in Venice.

The club has donated more than 4,000 dictionaries to Sarasota elementary schools for nearly 15 straight years in partnership with a nonprofit called the Dictionary Project, Gar Reese told the newspaper. It was the first year that they were refused.

Reese said when the new law went into effect, the club president checked with principals to make sure there would be no issues with donations – and was referred to the district, which said he would have to wait until January.

That’s at least in part because the law requires that all reading material in schools — whether purchased or donated — be “screened” by a certified educational media specialist, and the district currently has no work in their schools.

Kelsey Whealy, media relations specialist for Sarasota County Schools, told NPR via email that the school board had already approved the district media specialist job description, but said the temporary freeze would last at least until January 2023.

She said the district is “hopeful” that it will have enough time to hire the new media specialists, review existing material, and receive updated guidance from the Florida Department of Education and the team at the district program on how to interpret the law.

Meanwhile, Reese told the newspaper that if the district doesn’t accept dictionaries from the club, it could go to private schools or suspend donations entirely this year.

While the stalled dictionary donation may have catapulted the district into the national spotlight, it’s just one of the complications posed by the new law.

Whealy shared advice from district officials that book fairs, school book orders and read-alouds can continue this fall as planned, with some caveats.

School orders must be reviewed by parents in advance and taken home by students, for example, and teachers have been urged to contact administrators and parents to find out which books they intend to read aloud to younger students.

The district aims to provide maximum support for teachers while complying with the new law, she explained.

“Once we receive guidance from our legal team and receive direction from the FDOE, we will contact our education and community partners with updates,” Whealy said. “We appreciate their support and do not wish to jeopardize the wonderful relationship we have in place.”

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