In recent years, conservative parents (and dark money-funded “parents’” groups) have attacked school boards as a political target and increasingly pursued book bans. PEN America reported “1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles” during the first half of the 2022-23 school year. These bans restrict students’ and local residents’ access to important knowledge about the world around them on a broad range of topics.
The history of Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latiné Americans are also being systematically erased, as conservatives claim such studies make white students “uncomfortable.” The public library was one of my safe havens as a kid, and I’m thankful for the access I had to a wide array of books. I had the opportunity to learn about my history and have my experiences as a Black person reflected through the books I read.
Fortunately, states like California and Illinois are taking a firm stance against censorship with recent legislation. These bills outline that school boards can no longer ban books and curricula, especially in order to uplift a political agenda and/or dismiss diverse experiences.
In June Illinois became the first state to outlaw book bans. The legislation was spearheaded by Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who serves as the state librarian. Taking effect on January 1, 2024, it ties state funding to a library bill of rights that may be based on the American Library Assocaition’s library bill of rights, which notably highlights that libraries have a responsibility of having a wide range of materials across the spectrum of ideas. However, the legislation sparked partisan backlash and the Senate convened a hearing last week to discuss who can determine the content of libraries, and invited Giannoulias to testify. Even though Republicans cited sexual passages to discredit the Illinois law, Giannoulias shared the importance of protecting knowledge as a pillar of protecting liberty.
The California bill, which is expected to be signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, focuses on school curricula and books in school libraries. As LGBTQ Nation reports, it also “requires schools to have trained staff to help queer kids and reiterates protections against forcibly outing LGBTQ+ students to their possibly unsupportive parents.” Both states’ legislation set a b precedent of protecting avenues of public knowledge and education. As classrooms become increasingly politicized by the right, it’s becoming more and more important to protect schools, universities, and libraries as havens for public education and knowledge.
These attacks are not led by independent or grassroot movements. Instead, they are coordinated and strategic campaigns led by politicians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and organizations like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education. These groups disguise themselves as grassroots parent movements but are linked to prominent and powerful conservative donors and create templates for conservative parents to take over school boards. School board members’ elections are often overlooked but hold a lot of power over schools and teachers. Moreover, some organizations like Mom’s for America that are focusing on promoting right-wing school curricula received funding from the George Jenkins Foundation, which also funded groups involved in the January 6 insurrection.
From local efforts to control school boards to state censorship laws, teachers and librarians are being stripped of their ability to create curricula that reflect the diversity of thought and experiences of their community. These right-wing groups encourage parents to stalk teachers’ and librarians’ personal social media pages. Educators and librarians are treated with suspicion, and their expertise questioned as conservatives peddle outlandish accusations of “grooming” and “indoctrination.”
Florida has some of the most notorious laws with the “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop Woke” laws passed in 2022. These laws prohibit discussion of LGBT+ people and experiences at school and also restrict teaching history that highlights the experiences of marginalized groups. This has left teachers on edge, and put the state at odds with the College Board, an organization that creates and administers standardized tests and curricula. This has also led to an increasingly hostile classroom environment for LGBT+ students and students of color.
Even in more progressive states, school boards are under similar pressure from so-called parent’s rights groups. In California, the governor has an ongoing feud with Temecula Valley Unified School District over canceled textbooks that mentioned a gay activist. Right-wing groups often label books and curricula as “indecent” or “pornographic” to remove books discussing LGBT+ people, even if there is no mention of sex acts. As a queer person, this rhetoric is harmful, as it falsely reduces our complex identities and experiences to illicit and inappropriate sex acts.
Sexual education is also under attack, which leaves young people vulnerable to miseducation on the natural developments they’re experiencing. Lack of sexual education in schools is unfortunately linked to spikes in teen and unwanted pregnancies.
Illinois and California provide models to remove culture wars from our schools that can be replicated elsewhere. There are many opportunities for progressives to step up and ensure that public knowledge isn’t being attacked right under our noses, from engaging in local elections, to visiting libraries and supporting their work highlighting diverse stories, or pushing back against conservative school board takeovers and uplifting student-led groups.
School is supposed to be a place where students can learn about the world around them as they prepare for the future. Curricula that instead misrepresent history, obscure diversity and leave out critical information do a disservice to students, and leave them unprepared for life. As these right-wing movements continue to gain traction, we must continue to build opportunities to oppose these shifts toward censorship.