FORT WORTH, Texas — Late last month, state Rep. Matt Krause wrote to an unknown number of Texas school districts, asking them to provide information about books possibly in their libraries’ possession, specifically those addressing sensitive topics such as race and sex.
The letter from the Fort Worth Republican, sent in his capacity as chairman of the House Committee on General Investigating, was brief and non-threatening, more akin to an audit than an investigation. The language it used tracked laws recently passed by the Legislature addressing content that should and should not be part of public school curricula. Still, given the nationwide attention suddenly being paid to what is being taught or made available in public schools, it set off a firestorm of headlines warning of possible book bans and censorship.
Those headlines had me worried. The notion of “book burnings,” as media reports like to describe attempts at censorship, is alarming.
Last year, in the wake of racial unrest, districts across the country began banning the teaching of literary classics such as “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Those decisions were rash and worrisome.
But after learning about the content that (at least in part) prompted Krause’s inquiry, I was even more worried — not by the alleged attempts to ban literature but by the books themselves. As Krause’s letter notes, parents in districts across the state have been appalled to find books containing sexually explicit content on the library shelves of their kids’ public schools.
In Keller ISD, one such book, “Gender Queer,” contains graphic sexual illustrations of teenagers experimenting on each other sexually. It was removed from library shelves only after angry parents raised the issue. A similar book remains on the shelves in the Lake Travis ISD while district leaders conduct a review.
At a Richardson ISD board meeting, the mother of an eighth-grader made trustees members squirm when she read aloud a sexually explicit passage in one of her daughter’s required texts.
“There’s no approved book list, and teachers are given full autonomy as to what books they select,” she told the board. “How can every teacher be responsible to know the appropriateness of every book?”
It was a fair question. And as Krause’s letter illustrates, she is far from the only person asking.
Shortly after Krause’s inquiry was made public, Gov. Greg Abbott tried to address it by directing the Texas Education Agency and others to develop statewide standards with regard to obscene content in Texas public schools and school libraries.
Still, some see Abbott’s effort — and Krause’s, too — as little more than political stunts. And, of course, both are seeking to outflank opponents in upcoming elections.
But is it really so crazy for the state to play a role in setting guardrails for content that most parents would find objectionable in literature made available to minors in taxpayer-funded public school libraries? Progressives don’t seem to think so. They’ve been involved in their own efforts throughout the country to ban books they find offensive, and not just in schools and beyond.
Many conservatives tend to argue that decisions regarding what’s available in public school libraries shelves should be governed by local school boards and district leadership and PTAs. But that’s insufficient in schools where few parents are involved. Families struggling to get by do not have the time to keep up with what their kids are exposed to at school.
Texas conservatives should learn from Glenn Youngkin’s upset victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, which was fueled in part by parental frustration with opaque school boards that refused to respond to concerns about radical materials on sex and race. What Krause and Abbott are doing will provide greater transparency so parents in more communities are aware of what is happening in the their kids’ schools.
Education officials who object to greater transparency should be a red flag to parents. We used to have broad societal agreement that certain materials were inappropriate for minors. It’s bad for children that the agreement seems to have broken down.
At least some elected officials in Texas are attempting to help parents reinstate it. Why are we calling that book burning?
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2021 Fort Worth Star-Telegram.