National debate over parental rights and censorship enters local school board races

School board elections are increasingly becoming proxies for the larger political culture wars on issues of race, gender and parental rights. Several states have recently implemented laws that critics say effectively ban books in schools and libraries. Kelly Jensen, an editor at Book Riot and a former librarian who has been monitoring book censorship nationwide, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Voters are taking their grievances over public schools to the ballot box this midterm cycle, as school board elections have become a proxy war for larger political culture wars on issues of race, gender and parental rights.

    Florida and several other states have implemented laws that critics say effectively ban certain books in schools and libraries.

    To talk about this growing fight in education, I'm joined by Kelly Jensen, an editor at the literary site Book Riot. she's a former librarian and has been monitoring book censorship nationwide.

    Kelly Jensen, welcome and thanks you for joining us.

    So, broadly speaking, when you look at book challenges, the book removals from schools and school libraries, what are you seeing? How would you characterize what's going on right now?

  • Kelly Jensen, Book Riot:

    So, right now, what we're seeing is sort of the culmination of 16-plus months of work in looking at the sorts of books that are in school libraries and in classrooms.

    And there's been a systemic plan to pull books about people of color and books about or by or related to issues of queer identity. And so, right now, we're seeing parents really wanting to have say in the sorts of materials that are available to their students, and doing so through book bannings, through seeking opportunities to have input on curriculum and in what sorts of materials their kids have had access to.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So we — I should mention, we spoke with one of the co-founders of one of the groups who has been saying that parents should have more of a say in what their kids have access to in school.

    It's a woman named Tina Descovich. she's the co-founder of the group Moms for Liberty, she argues that what they're pushing for is not actually a ban on books. But here's how she characterizes what they're doing.

    Take a listen.

    Tina Descovich, Founder, Moms for Liberty: We do not stand by or believe that we are banning books. We want to make sure books are age-appropriate for our children.

    And we're looking for solutions together, like I mentioned. There's options to put books in a place where you need parental permission or A practical opt-out or parental opt-in, whatever each local district decides, but there is no hard ban.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Kelly, what would you say to that? She says no hard ban. Is that what you have seen?

  • Kelly Jensen:

    So they have been successful in getting a number of books pulled from school libraries. And they have had a lot of pull in the legislation that we have seen come out of Florida in particular.

    In Florida, here's a good example. To showcase just how small a group this is speaking on behalf of parents more broadly, in Polk County, which is the seventh largest district in Florida, reliably Republican, there are about 110,000 students. And Polk County just implemented a system where parents could opt their students out of a number of books that have come under fire.

    And of all of those students, less than 160 kids have had their parents opt them out of access to these books. So, really, truly, it's a very small number. And so what they're trying to do is revoke access to this material for all students, and not just their students.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kelly, at the core of this conservative argument is also this idea. They say that public education has long skewed towards liberal ideas, and we feel like we have been left out of this conversation.

    we asked Tina Descovich about this. This is what she said.

  • Tina Descovich:

    Even educators aren't necessarily checking what's what's in every one of these books. A lot of times, I have talked to school librarians that order books through lists that they have depended on historically.

    And so they haven't read every single book that they have allowed into the library. It takes kind of all hands on deck. And when it comes to what our children, especially our youngest children, are being exposed to, parents need to have a voice in that conversation.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kelly, what would you say to that, this argument that parents feel like they have been left out? Shouldn't they have a say in their kids education?

  • Kelly Jensen:

    Parents have always had a say in their education. They have always had the right to opt their children out of lessons, out of readings that they don't feel appropriate for the students. It's always been a right that they have had.

    What the argument that they're trying to make now is that professionals who use professional tools to determine materials that are appropriate for students are not useful tools for determining what should or should not be in a library or a classroom.

    And the argument is that librarians and educators can't rely on these tools that are created and sustained by professionals in education, in librarianship, in child develop development, and should instead listen to parents who are trying to undermine the professionals and the professional institutions of education and librarianship.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, we're now seeing these issues show up in our elections, specifically in school board elections today in Florida, but also elsewhere. Tell me about that.

    What are we seeing?

  • Kelly Jensen:

    So, in Florida, it's been going on for about a year now that there's been this real push to get conservative voices on school boards.

    And, in Florida and most other states — Texas is a great example, outside Dallas. They have had a number of challenges in the last year. And during that year, a number of books were considered appropriate for the classrooms and libraries. So they stayed on the shelf.

    We just saw that they pulled all those titles again in the last couple of weeks, because the new school board, which was put together by a very conservative PAC organization there, decided that they need to re-review all these titles.

    So whatever decisions the previous school board made are now considered not the right decision to make. And so this new group of people who have been put in there purposefully with very long conservative ties, conservative money are able to then make new determinations about the books that are in the schools.

    In that case, that's where they pulled the Bible. That's where they have pulled "The Diary of Anne Frank," the graphic novel, which got a lot of attention in the last couple of weeks for those titles that everyone knows and is familiar with being pulled again from the schools.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And fair to say I think an issue we will see come up in election after election moving forward.

    That is Kelly Jensen, editor of the literary site Book Riot and a former librarian.

    Thanks for joining us.

  • Kelly Jensen:

    Thank you for having me.

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