Florida lawmakers want to make it easier for parents and residents to challenge school textbooks. Depending on who you ask, the bill is a slippery slope towards book burning, or a step towards community control. But with just days left in the Session, lawmakers face a tight deadline to pass the measure. At the time of publishing, the Senate was scheduled to consider the measure, but had not yet taken it up.
Your grandmother may have told you there’s no accounting for taste. But when it comes to taste in public textbooks, things get tricky. There is a relatively small but vocal group of Floridians who are concerned about some of the books landing in K - 12 classrooms and libraries.
“There are some counties where the constituents in those counties believe that the instruction material being vetting by the state are too liberal,” said Senator Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican. “And therefore some of the instructional material has inappropriate information in it by their community standards.”
And as it happens, one person’s literary masterpiece is another’s smut. Hamilton Boone of Brevard County has been trying to get Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning account of a former slave pulled from his son’s high school library.
“And I won’t go into details of what’s in the book Beloved and what brought us before two committees and the school board, because I’d be asked to leave the room,” Boone said.
He objects to the book’s sexually explicit content and says the school board is ignoring his complaints.
“Today parents are purposefully blocked from being involved in their child’s education,” Boone said.
To be fair, Dania Beach Democratic Representative Joe Geller points out parents do have an appeals process.
“We have existing rules that allow for parent input that our school boards are organized to handle!” Geller said.
And concerned parents have made some inroads. The American Library Association keeps tabs on challenged books in public schools. Florida landed six volumes on their banned books list for the 2015-2016 school year. Nonetheless, Naples Republican Representative Byron Donalds wants to give Floridians more power to pull books they find inappropriate.
“[The bill] allows county residents to challenge an adoption of an instructional material, and object to other materials made available to students," Donalds said.
That’s right - residents could lodge complaints, not just parents. And school boards would have to take more public testimony and evidence, and appoint someone to oversee the process. Anything that looks remotely like censorship can make people nervous, like Ft. Lauderdale Democratic Senator Gary Farmer.
“I think it is a slippery slope from something like this to down the road…censorship. And eventually maybe even book burning,” Farmer said.
Critics don’t want to see the state’s knowledge suffer if a topic is deemed inappropriate or inflammatory. The National Coalition Against Censorship has written a letter opposing the measure. But Senate sponsor Tom Lee wants to empower local communities in what is a very diverse state.
“The community standards are what’s really driving this. And I want to do something that isn’t onerous on the school district, so there’s not a second vetting process. But just make sure that these citizens have a right to redress in those areas of the state where they might have different community standards,” Lee said.
But retired educator Beth Mims worries the change could even derail classes by delaying the rollout of new books.
“Because I have a feeling that we may be opening school without instructional materials,” Mims said.
Mims says the change could swamp districts that are already pressed for time and resources under the current review process.