It’s not just the ridiculous “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” or restrictions on discussing issues of gender and sexuality in early grades or last week’s decision not to allow an Advanced Placement African American Studies course to be taught in Florida high schools. Governor Ron DeSantis’s crusade against independent thought is leading to bare bookshelves in classrooms as teachers panic about whether their own classroom libraries violate state law.
Last year DeSantis signed HB 1467, which barred pornography and “age inappropriate” books and required that all reading materials “be suited to student needs.” But school district administrators haven’t been clear about how they’re going to ascertain that. This month school officials instructed teachers in Manatee and Duval counties to either remove books from classrooms or cover them up with paper sheeting until the districts come up with a way to ensure that none of the reading material ran afoul of the new law. Teachers who don’t make sure their books pass DeSantis’s muster are risking up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine for displaying a forbidden book, which is a third-degree felony.
Some school districts, including Manatee and Duval, seemed unprepared to create a process whereby all books displayed in classrooms are “reviewed by a media specialist using the Florida Department of Education guidelines.” They then have to be “presented and approved” at a special school meeting and finally “signed off by the principal.” In Duval County, which comprises Jacksonville, PEN America found that 176 titles had already been banned, including at least one Berenstain Bears book; biographies of Henry Aaron, Harriet Tubman, Celia Cruz, Rosa Parks, and Malala; a preponderance of books about non-white children and families; as well as those dealing with sexual themes. Weirdly, many focus on stories centered around ethnic foods: Dim Sum, Dim Sum For Everyone!, Dumpling Soup, and Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story are all verboten in Duval.
Across the nation, PEN America counts found 2,532 instances of individual books’ being banned, affecting 1,648 book titles. Florida ranks third among all 50 states in book bans, according to PEN, behind Texas and Pennsylvania.
Administrators at Broward and Miami-Dade County schools told local reporters this week that they are not currently restricting what’s available in classroom libraries. But Moms for Liberty, a right-wing education pressure group also active in crusading against masks, critical race theory, and sex education in schools, is pressuring both districts to ban several books, including The Kite Runner and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, supposedly because they include rape scenes. Both books are a staple of Advance Placement literature courses, school board members say, which could mean that high-achieving Florida students are less well-educated when they get to college than peers in other states. The group is also demanding the removal of LGBT-themed books in the lower grades—and Broward County has complied with some of the requests.
Media Matters reported that Moms for Liberty is also creating chapter positions of “Books/Library Director” to help its members target individual school districts and ferret out books they deem offensive. Gathering in Florida last summer, Moms for Liberty claimed that it had 195 chapters in 37 states and nearly 100,000 members. Its goal is to have a presence in every school district.
One administrator in Pinellas County told CNN that his district is going “beyond what the state requires,” implementing its own process to weed out books with “adult-themed” material.
But some teachers are trying to rebel. A Manatee High School teacher in Bradenton said he’s choosing to cover up his books rather than remove them. “I think it’s a stronger statement to cover them up. My students have asked me what’s going on, and while I did not go into a lot of details, I let them know about the restrictions that have been placed on the books that have come from the district by way of the state,” said Don Falls, a 38-year teaching veteran. “I don’t have the time or feel like I should have to go through all these books and put them in the system. It’s fundamentally wrong to me and my students’ First Amendment rights.” National Review terms such teachers’ moves “stunts” designed to make DeSantis look bad, not that he needs any help.
Not to be outdone by the man he calls “Ron DeSanctimonious,” Donald Trump flung out his own culture-war red meat in a video last week, calling on schools to certify only “patriotic teachers,” crusading against critical race theory, and proposing that principals be elected by the parents of their students. What could go wrong?
Listening to DeSantis and Trump, Virginia’s Glenn Youngkin, and the Moms For Liberty, it’s hard not to feel that if they have their way with education policy, your child will be educated according to the knowledge and values of the stupidest, most bigoted, and close-minded people in your school community. A CBS News poll last year found that upwards of 80 percent of people oppose book bans having to do with race, history, or politics.
Besides, what “liberty” are those right-wing Moms for Liberty demanding? Certainly not the liberty of free thought and inquiry or the liberty to raise your child with your own values. In recent years, there’s been a trend I don’t personally love, where parents can opt their kids out of coursework—sex ed is common—or reading materials they find objectionable. But I guess that’s better than having a majority of children’s education governed by a close-minded, bigoted minority. These kinds of education policies are going to accelerate the sorting of red and blue states and further erode the notion of any kind of common culture—which is a funny project for a group of people that blames the left for dividing us and deriding what exists as a shared American culture.