NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Less than a week after a local Tennessee school board attracted national attention for banning a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, Gov. Bill Lee went public with a push for more scrutiny of school libraries so students consume “age appropriate” content.
“We are proposing a new law that will ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries," Lee said during his annual address to the Republican-controlled Legislature. "This law will also create greater accountability at the local level so parents are empowered to make sure content is age-appropriate.”
The Republican's remarks echo sentiments of conservative officials across the country who are increasingly attempting to limit the exposure of children to certain books, particularly those that touch on structural racism and LGBTQ issues.
Most recently, Republican governors in South Carolina and Texas called on superintendents to perform a systemic review of “inappropriate” materials in their states’ schools.
Defining what's inappropriate is where things get complicated. Opponents say the efforts are political and smack of an effort to intimidate certain communities, with the careful assessment of content best left to professional educators and librarians.
In Tennessee, the debate has simmered for months as the state's education agency finalizes how schools should enforce a law banning the teaching of certain concepts of race and racism known as critical race theory — an academic framework about systemic racism that has become a catchall phrase for teaching about race in U.S. history.
That debate only became more inflamed when the McMinn County School Board decided last week to remove “Maus” from its curriculum because of “inappropriate language” and an illustration of a nude woman, according to minutes from a board meeting. The illustration is actually a cartoon mouse, and the effort backfired in one sense, sending sales of the book soaring three decades after it won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize.
At a separate school board in the wealthy area of Williamson County, just south of Nashville, a conservative nonprofit group called Moms for Liberty has gained attention criticizing a range of materials that they say shouldn't be in schools.
And in January, country singer John Rich tweeted to his large following that he had met with the governor and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and was promised legislation would be introduced to “deal with ‘literature’ that our kids are being exposed to containing obscene and pornographic content.”
Several bills have already been filed this legislative session targeting school libraries including a proposal to remove any “obscene materials or materials harmful to minors” from public school libraries. Librarians across the state say such restrictions are already in place, countering that the latest trend aims to censor certain topics and books.
“This is an effort to intimidate us to not buy controversial books and they’re trying to intimidate us to not speak out about these laws,” said Bryan Jones with the Tennessee Library Association. “Much like the critical race theory debate, this bill obscures the truth. There’s no pornography in school libraries.”
Meanwhile, a separate bill would ban schools from using textbooks or materials that “promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.” The bill applies not only to curriculum but also materials that could be found in a school library. Last year, lawmakers approved legislation that forced school districts to alert parents of any instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity and let them opt their student out.
Lee, who is running for reelection this year, has filed a separate bill that would require school libraries to post their contents online and regularly review their policies to make sure the materials are “age-appropriate" and “suitable” for the children accessing them.
The bill was filed Monday, but with the governor's backing, it's likely to pass in the GOP-controlled General Assembly.
Librarians counter that many of these procedures already exist and have stressed the need for better resources and possibly adding a state library coordinator to promote literacy and education across the state.
“School library catalogs are already accessible online and library collection development procedures are posted online, and reconsideration procedures exist to address concerns of parents," Lindsey Kimery, library services coordinator at Metro Nashville Public Schools, told lawmakers earlier this week.