By failing to properly follow state law, its own founding charter, and sponsoring the school district’s stated policy, a Central Florida high school had to deny about 40 students college credits they had worked a semester to earn.
What happened in Lake Wales Charter Schools isn’t evidence of any grand scheme by local administrators to deceive and it is only marginally “newsworthy” beyond the small city in Polk County.
But that’s just it, County Citizens Defending Freedom-USA (CCDF-USA) maintains: What happened in Lake Wales happens routinely in school districts nationwide because no one is watching and even those who are, often face confounding layers of bureaucracy obscuring transparency and accountability.
This environment, CCDF argues, creates the opportunity for curriculum and other materials—that many parents would find objectionable and inappropriate for their children—to end up on public school shelves without their knowledge.
“This is typical of the matters being brought up” during months-long audits being conducted by the group into local school districts’ operations, CCDF-USA secretary Jimmy Nelson said on April 1.
The group filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests while looking into Lake Wales Charter Schools—seven schools operated under state charter school statutes with nearly 5,000 students.
Among the documents it received were email exchanges between Lake Wales and Polk County district officials regarding a “dual enrollment” program offered to high school pupils.
About 40 Lake Wales students had enrolled in a course offered by Wesleyan College, a liberal arts college in Macon, Georgia.
The curriculum for the course was developed by National Education Equity Lab (NEEL)—which describes itself as “a partnership” between Yale, Howard, Cornell, Arizona State University, University of Connecticut, and Harvard—that enables “high school students from historically underserved communities to take actual college courses from college professors.”
Among the books available for students to read was “Fun Home,” a “tragicomic” graphic novel by Alison Bechdel that features graphic sex scenes inappropriate for minors, including high school students, parent groups nationwide argue.
CCDF-USA is among them.
“There are those who think this book is appropriate. We wholeheartedly disagree,” said Nelson, who served four years on the Lake Wales City Commission before serving on the Lake Wales school board for six years.
But whether the book is appropriate or not, Nelson said what CCDF discovered is that the district violated its own policy, Polk County Public School’s rules, and state law in allowing students access to the book.
“They didn’t go through the proper process to vet this book. It should never have ended up in [coursework] for a 15-year-old sophomore,” he said, noting CCDF isn’t agitating to ban books but to ensure “parents have the right to know what their children are reading in schools.”
In this case, he said, parents were asked to sign off on a vague outline of the curriculum but were never provided any detail of what that entailed, in violation of a 2021 statute adopted by Florida lawmakers.
“Florida state law is very clear on the matter,” Nelson said. “We believe they broke state law.”
The NEEL program was delivered by Wesleyan College via a $1 million donation by Henry McCance—whose McCance Foundation has contributed more than $5 million to Lake Wales since it became a charter school operation in August 2004—and who is among “out-of-state” influences that lobbied the board to maintain mandatory mask policies in violation of state law during the summer of 2021.
During its probe, CCDF-USA uncovered emails between officials regarding a failure to properly present the program for board approval as required under its own charter rules and by Polk County Public Schools.
At one point, course teachers attempted to submit a retroactive mutual use agreement with Wesleyan College to the board in November for the NEEL program that had been taught since September.
The board rejected the agreement, alerted by parents upset with “Fun Home” and other materials.
It may not have mattered anyway because implementing the course without board approval also violated Polk County Public School’s policy and, therefore, the district could not accord the credits the “dual enrollment” course offered.
“Because that critical step was not taken, the students were informed in December that they would not get college credits for the class, but it would be counted as an elective,” Nelson said.
Had that “critical step” been taken—as now required under state law—those students whose parents signed off on allowing them to read “Fun Home” and other materials, would have received those credits they worked hard for, he said.
The program has been implemented in more than 100 high schools across the country, he said, noting “Fun Home” has drawn its share of controversy on college campuses as well as among high school students’ parents.
So far this year, the Wentzville, Missouri, school board voted to remove “Fun Home” from its shelves even after a review committee overwhelmingly agreed to keep it. The school board of Blue Valley, Kansas, on the other hand, voted to retain “Fun Home.”
Parents in Somerset County, New Jersey, sued the Watchung Hills Regional High School District in 2019 demanding the removal of the book, claiming that if left on shelves “minors will suffer irreparable harm and that New Jersey statutes will be violated.” The suit, which remains unresolved, prompted a nearby district to remove the book.
Duke University and University of Utah students have objected to the book being required reading for incoming students. In 2013, Palmetto Family Council challenged the inclusion of “Fun Home” as a reading selection for incoming freshmen at the College of Charleston.
Nelson said in reviewing the emails that there does not appear to be any intent by officials to be deceptive or promote any type of ideology or lifestyle.
NEEL is overall a good program, he added, and the district was doing its job in using a donor’s contribution to garner a “dual enrollment” opportunity for students to get college credits while in high school.
But by not following state law, administrators blew that opportunity and allowed students to be exposed to materials many parents would have objected to, he said.
“We’re not making this a “question of intent,’” Nelson said, ”we’re making this about not following proper process and educating parents” to what that process is.
CCDF-USA founder and chair Steve Maxwell said these are the types of issues the group is uncovering as it conducts audits of school districts across Florida and Texas.
Maxwell began the group in his agricultural software business headquarters in Mulberry, outside Lakeland, in March 2021 to “make more permanent” a coalition that surfaced in April 2020 demonstrations against mask mandates imposed by the Polk County Public Schools Board.
The group has 13 Florida chapters, 10 in Texas, with five being formed in Georgia, he said. The immediate goal is “to have 100 county chapters by 2024” and to expand to every state in the years beyond.
Through associations with Moms For Liberty, Defend Florida, Alliance Defending Freedom, Turning Point USA, and Recover America, among other conservative groups, CCDF-USA’s local chapters are fielding 2022 school board candidates in races across Florida and Texas.
Most parents are “too busy raising families” to burrow deeply into the curriculum and the factors and forces influencing contemporary education, but CCDF-USA and its swelling ranks of volunteers are doing just that, he said.
“The biggest shock for us is how much our elected officials don’t know,” he said.
Maxwell said CCDF-USA is winning hearts and minds—and cooperation from school and elections officials—through a “code of conduct” that calls for low-key restraint rather than confrontation.
“We have received good responses. If you just expose things to the light,” it usually fosters action, he said. “Be professional. Have a good legal team. Be patient and consistent and 80 percent of these issues go away.”