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FHSAA replacement of word 'gender' OK'd by state board of ed

Colin Hackley/File
State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. opposes a new federal Title IX rule.

TALLAHASSEE — The State Board of Education on Wednesday approved changes in the Florida High School Athletic Association’s bylaws that include replacing mentions of the word “gender” with the word “sex,” amid a larger dispute between federal and state officials.

The changes came as Florida and other Republican-led states are challenging a Biden administration rule that would help carry out Title IX, a decades-old law that bars discrimination in education programs based on sex.

After the board meeting a number of Florida education leaders hosted a virtual press conference to discuss the current state of public education in Florida and what steps state leaders could be taking to address low average teacher salary and a critical teacher and staff shortage.

The federal rule, in part, would require that discrimination on the basis of gender identity be included under the broader definition of sex discrimination.

State Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. said Wednesday he has “directed the institutions under my purview not to take any steps toward implementing these harmful (federal) regulations.” Diaz said the Florida High School Athletics Association is one of those institutions.

The changes to the FHSAA bylaws included an update to the organization’s policy on “nondiscrimination.”

“The association will not discriminate in its governance policies, programs and employment practices on the basis of age, color, disability, sex, national origin, race, religion, creed, or educational choice. Each school is responsible to determine independently its own policies regarding nondiscrimination,” the updated bylaw says.

Florida and other Republican-led states in recent years have passed numerous measures focused on transgender people. In education, those measures have dealt with issues such as what bathrooms transgender students can use and barring transgender females from playing on girls’ sports teams.

During the education board meeting Wednesday in Miami, Crystal Etienne, a Miami-Dade County teacher, criticized the FHSAA bylaw changes after they were approved.

“Do you think a child is living through this scrutiny to be their true, authentic selves to win at sports? Do you think that’s what is happening in these schools? This is just another way to push the culture wars,” Etienne said.

Etienne also warned that if Florida does not “comply with Title IX, we will be at risk to lose the federal funding that our schools need to succeed.”

Florida, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina filed a federal lawsuit last month challenging the new Title IX rule. They allege, in part, that the Biden administration overstepped its legal authority in extending the regulations to apply to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

An Alabama federal judge will hear arguments July 1 on a request by the states and other plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction against the rule,

“By broadening the definition of sex to include sexual orientation and gender identity, the Biden administration is taking sports and educational opportunities away from girls,” Diaz said during Wednesday’s meeting.

But the U.S. Department of Education posted documents on its website that said the rule does not apply to issues about participation on sports teams.

“The department intends to issue a separate final rule to address Title IX’s application to sex-separate athletic teams,” one of the documents said.

State Board of Education ratification of FHSAA bylaws is a relatively new requirement. The Legislature last year passed a law requiring the board to give final approval to such changes.

“A bylaw adopted by the (FHSAA) Board of Directors does not take effect until it is ratified by the State Board (of Education), allowing us to have a little bit of oversight but also have a great dialogue with the FHSAA,” Board of Education Chairman Ben Gibson said Wednesday.

Other changes to the bylaws approved Wednesday include allowing student-athletes to continue playing sports if they graduate early.

At the virtual presser after the board meeting, those speaking said Florida ranks 50th in the nation in average teacher pay, a drop from previous years despite the state’s thriving economy. Students also continue to deal with the burden of a critical teacher and staff shortage.

The Florida Education Association called on state decision makers to listen to teachers by placing them on future State Board agendas to discuss the real needs of students in public schools.

Those speaking included Katie Blankenship, Executive Director, PEN America, Max Fenning, Executive Director, PRISM, Lissette Fernandez, Parent/Community Organizer, Moms for Libros, Karla Hernandez-Mats, President, United Teachers of Dade and Andrew Spar, President, Florida Education Association.

Spar, also an elementary school teacher, said what's concerning is that 50th ranking in the nation in average teacher pay.

"Fiftieth, which should be an embarrassment in the nation. Out of the 50 States and Washington DC, only one state," he said. "It pays lower than Florida when it comes to average teacher pay. We also lead the nation in the number of vacancies in teachers and staff in Florida's public schools."

Spar said Florida leads the nation with those vacancies because teachers and staff are leaving the profession in droves.

"Why? They're leaving because pay obviously is a problem, especially for those with," he said. "Experience. They're leaving the profession because they're constantly being blamed."

WGCU News contributed to this report.