This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of The Classroom Teacher.
Editor's Note: After the issue went to press, the Texas Education Agency released recommended statewide standards for Texas public school libraries. Read more about them here.
Orchestrated efforts to ban certain books deemed “pornographic” from school libraries across the country are being met with resistance from librarians, students and other groups who say access to a variety of viewpoints is an essential part of a well-rounded education.
In March, the Texas Library Association launched Texans for the Right to Read, a grassroots coalition working to stop schools from removing nearly 850 books cited by a lawmaker in October that primarily address LGBTQ issues, sexuality, women’s issues and race.
“The right to receive an education is something that is foundational to America,” TLA President Daniel Burgard said in a statement. “Possibly the most important skill students learn is how to develop a curious mind and think critically about a broad spectrum of subjects. Removing books based on the subjective opinions of elected officials has no place in our state or our democratic republic.”
Students are forming their own clubs to read some of the books that adults want banned, such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House.”
Even authors are speaking out.
“Some parents want to pretend that books are the source of darkness in kids’ lives,” Ashley Hope Pérez told NBC News in February. Her young adult novel “Out of Darkness” has been repeatedly targeted for its depiction of a rape scene and other mature content. “The reality for most kids is that difficulties, challenges, harm, oppression — those are present in their own lives, and books that reflect that reality can help to make them feel less alone.”
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the debates over content in schools are a “healthy function of our democracy,” according to an interview with WFAA in Dallas.
“School is a place where you want to nurture the minds of young people and it’s important for young people to be exposed to a steadily growing degree of complexity and a diversity of perspectives. It’s really the role of educators and in fact parents to guide students through that journey…” Morath said.
“The ultimate decision for the instructional material that kids are exposed to while they’re in their classroom or the library materials that are purchased in their schools … those are ultimately the purview of the local school boards. They make the decisions as to the standards and procedures that are adopted in their local contexts and their local communities.”
Despite the recent scrutiny, the law hasn’t changed.
School and classroom libraries are viewed as places for voluntary inquiry and are treated differently from instructional materials used in classroom instruction, according to the Texas Association of School Board’s resource Instructional Materials and Library Books in Texas Public Schools — What You Need to Know.
Though local school boards maintain authority over curriculum in compliance with state law, they often delegate the selection of instructional materials to educators, including administrators, teachers, library media specialists, other personnel, parents and community members, as appropriate. Boards also provide that the selection of resources is an ongoing process that includes the removal of resources no longer appropriate.
The Texas State Library and Archives Commission with the State Board of Education, adopts standards for school library services (TEC § 33.021). School districts must consider the standards in developing, implementing or expanding library services (13 Tex. Admin. Code § 4.1). The School Library Programs: Standards and Guidelines for Texas emphasize the intellectual development of students, community collaboration and privacy interests.
Since October, parents and community members across Texas have been calling for districts to act on hundreds of books:
Per TEC § 26.006, parents are entitled to review all teaching and instructional materials. If a parent or other concerned person thinks a resource found in the library is not appropriate, school districts have complaint policies that allow anyone to present a grievance to the school district. Most school districts have a special policy regarding the reconsideration of instructional resources, including library books.
Commonly, a parent is asked to fill out a complaint form, then the appropriate administrator calls together a reconsideration committee, including a member of the instructional staff who is familiar with the resource or has experience using the resource with students, as well as others such as district-level staff, library staff, secondary-level students and parents, as needed. The committee then reviews the challenged material in its entirety and makes a recommendation to the administration. If the parent is unhappy with the outcome, the parent may appeal.
Though it differs for each district, TASB explains that a local school board policy may establish the following principles for the committee:
In November 2020, a Leander ISD advisory committee began reviewing high school student reading lists after receiving complaints. By December 2021 when its review was complete, 11 books were no longer allowed in the district’s book clubs or in classroom collections.
In Granbury, the superintendent told librarians in January that 130 books were being pulled from shelves for review. In March, a volunteer committee voted to permanently ban three of the books and return the others to circulation.
But the review may not end there. The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and NBC News reported that a new policy approved by the school board grants Granbury administrators broad authority to unilaterally remove additional titles they deem inappropriate, with no formal review and no way for the public to easily find out what has been pulled from shelves.
As challenges continue, teachers can protect themselves by following all local policies when selecting books for classroom libraries and keeping documentation showing they have approval where it is needed.
TCTA members with questions about instructional materials should call the Legal Department at 888-879-8282 to speak with a staff attorney.