For evidence of the damage caused by moral panic over school library books, turn to Keller ISD for Exhibit A.
When a parent in that school district disputes a book in a classroom or school library, the district convenes a committee of staff, parents, and other community members to review the book. Each book challenge invites a separate committee. Committee decisions are final, although they may be appealed to the school board.
In other words, these are not just recommendations. These ad hoc committees have the power to decide whether a book stays or leaves and, at least in Keller ISD, they make their decisions in secret. The district is blocking the publication of the names of people who sit on committees, citing fear of hostility and even criminal investigations. Books that delve into race and sexuality have caught the attention of state officials, with Governor Greg Abbott threatening to prosecute those responsible for “pornography” in public schools.
We believe that Keller ISD is wrong to withhold information about its committees. Yet the district’s concerns are a sad reflection of the nasty politics that plague schools’ good faith efforts to find consensus on controversial issues.
Keller ISD is not the only one to have these “review boards”. A review of educational resource policies in other North Texas school districts, including Dallas, shows that they allow similar committees to deal with formal complaints from parents about books. A school district is right to include parents and community members who can provide feedback on what is age appropriate. But it is a mistake to grant a group of volunteers the consequent power to decide which books are taken out of public school libraries while protecting them from basic government transparency.
In a letter contesting our colleague Talia Richman’s request for the names of people on the book protest committees, an attorney for Keller ISD argued that committee members may reasonably fear scrutiny from social media posts. and outside forces such as governor pressure.
“Public comments at school board meetings show a level of passion around this topic that is at times overwhelming,” read the letter, which notes that people will be discouraged from volunteering for the school board’s challenge committees. book due to harassment and potential retaliation.
The bullying of school officials and parents is the depressing result of the culture wars waged over how we talk about race and gender in the classroom. We are disappointed that our governor and other politicians have stoked the hysteria instead of calming the mood so that schools and their communities can have respectful conversations about how to deal with thorny topics.
But the fact that the book protest committees deal with controversial topics, that emotions run high, and that they are provisional in nature shouldn’t prevent their lists from going public under the state’s open government laws. Other volunteer groups who debate contentious issues for local governments, such as zoning commissions, make their decisions in public.
Government power and public control go hand in hand. If districts are unwilling to reveal who sits on their book protest committees, then they should find another avenue for parent involvement that does not leave final decisions in the hands of anonymous volunteers.