Democrats on the Senate Education and Health Committee narrowly rejected a bill targeting controversial teaching materials in public schools — a political flashpoint that has troubled local school boards and become an issue key in the race for governor of Virginia.
The legislation, which died Thursday in an 8-7 vote, is not the only bill this session aimed at addressing complaints about the content of books available in school libraries and assigned in classrooms. But the vote was likely an indicator of the fate of similar legislation in the Democratic-controlled committee, whose members have pledged to block numerous Republican-backed measures on issues such as teaching what Gov. Glenn Youngkin called “dividing” concepts in schools.
Sponsored by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, the legislation would have required local school boards to develop policies on the selection and evaluation of all “print and audio-visual materials” available in school libraries and that parental permission is required before a student can verify. a book with sexual content. The bill would also have required local school boards to develop policies to deal with “controversial educational materials.”
“I’m not trying to ban anything or burn anything – all I’m saying is let parents say it’s good for their child to see this,” he said. said DeSteph, who narrowed the scope of the bill in response to concerns from several committee members. As originally drafted, the legislation would have required parent involvement and “reasonable opportunity for public comment” before school libraries added new material.
The original bill also would have required school libraries to remove books that could be considered “grooming materials.” a term defined in the Virginia code related to depictions of children engaging in sexual acts in the context of child pornography or soliciting minors for sexual purposes. Libraries, museums and works of art are exempt from the code section, but DeSteph – who started hearings for the bill by distributing excerpts from books he considered objectionable – used the term to describe texts such as “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and the graphic novel “Gender Queer”, which explores non-binary gender identity and includes two depictions of LGBTQ sexual experiences.
Both books have been at the center of contentious debates across Virginia over what materials are available in school libraries or assigned in classrooms. This fall, Fairfax County removed “Gender Queer” and the novel “Lawn Boy” from school library shelves after complaints from some parents, to reintegrate them weeks later. Relatives in Virginia Beach protested the same books, as well as “The Bluest Eye” and “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines.
Spotsylvania County made national headlines after banning all sexually explicit books from school libraries, just for reverse the decision a week later. And Youngkin made controversial texts a central issue in the final days of his campaign, running a political ad featuring a Fairfax County mother who called on the district to ban the novel “Beloved” by award-winning Toni Morrison. Pulitzer Prize, awarded to his son’s high school. Advanced Placement Course.
Like Youngkin, DeSteph and other supporters have touted the bill as an important protection of parental rights. “This last election showed us that parents want more control over what happens in their schools,” Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, said at a committee meeting Thursday. “We’ve all watched this election and we all know why the governor is sitting in this mansion right now.”
Opponents of the legislation, however — including Democratic committee members, the Virginia Education Association, Virginia Association of School Superintendents, Virginia School Boards Association and Virginia Association of School Librarians — have raised a range of logistical and ideological concerns with the bill on two contentious hearings.
Before the legislation was changed, school librarians feared that the provisions for parent involvement and the public comment period – mandated in the original draft but without a clear indication of how they should be structured – would delay the timetable tight for adding new books to libraries over the summer. . Even without these requirements, many said the bill was redundant given that school librarians are trained to check and approve texts, and parents can already ask their local school boards to review any books they find controversial.
“We follow best practices by reviewing books in their entirety, not taking passages out of context and only then deciding whether they’re relevant,” said Kelly Passek, a Blacksburg college librarian who was appointed librarian of the 2021 year of the Virginia school, in a hearing last week. “And we are assessed annually on our adherence to these guidelines.”
“The fact that this legislation suggests that our library professionals and public school libraries would provide students with illegal and immoral materials is untrue at best and disgusting at worst,” she added.
At the same hearing, Democratic committee members also questioned DeSteph’s description of many of the books as pornographic and unnecessary. Asked by Sen. Janet Powell, D-Fairfax, if he had ever read “The Bluest Eye”, DeSteph replied that he did not understand the educational value of the book.
“This book and the full list of books I provided – I skimmed through them, read excerpts, or read the entire book,” he said. “And I really don’t understand the educational value of any of them except ‘Lolita,’ which is an international work of literary art.”
Howell and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, also objected to the central premise of the bill — that parents should have complete control over the books their children choose to consult in school libraries. And Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, was skeptical that the legislation – which would have applied to all grade levels – would insulate children from explicit or controversial content in the age of smartphones.
“You think we’d pass this and 15, 16, 17 year olds – even 14 year olds – have no way of finding this stuff anyway?” he said before rejecting the bill on Thursday. “It’s just absurd.”