RICHMOND — Virginia regulators are drafting rules that would require school districts to red-flag objectionable teaching material and make it easier for parents to control what books their children see in the classroom, though a similar bill was vetoed last year by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia schools would have to send parents a list of any teaching materials containing “sexually explicit” content at the start of every school year under a policy being considered by the state Board of Education. All local school boards would be required to set up a way for parents to opt out of objectionable materials; teachers would have to provide replacement texts for those who ask for them.
School reading lists have long been sources of controversy, with parents concerned about exposing their children to vulgar language or sensitive topics, fighting to expunge even classic works — such as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” — from classrooms. Teachers and literacy organizations often decry such moves as censorship that erase important literature from curriculums.
In the past month alone in Virginia, Accomack County briefly pulled “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn” from classrooms and libraries after a parent complained about their use of racial slurs. In September, Chesterfield County considered removing books from its schools after parents condemned summer-reading-list titles such as “Eleanor and Park” and “Dope Sick” as “pornographic” and “trash.”
The latest effort has drawn sharp rebuke from free-speech groups and educators, who worry about stigmatizing literature that they view has deep educational value.
“This is not good policy, and it’s treading on dangerous legal ground,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, head of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, which joined with six other groups in sending a letter of opposition to the state board. “We’ll be evaluating what happens at every step of the way.”
The regulations, which will be reviewed by the board this month, cover the same ground as the “Beloved” bill, passed by the General Assembly last year amid much controversy. The measure got that name because a Fairfax County parent whose high-school-aged son was assigned to read the Toni Morrison book sought to ban it.
McAuliffe (D) vetoed that bill in part because it could cause a work of literature to be deemed “sexually explicit” based on a single scene, without context, he said at the time. “Numerous educators, librarians, students, and others involved in the teaching process have expressed their concerns about the real-life consequences of this legislation’s requirements,” he said in his veto statement.
But McAuliffe also said he was acting because the state board was looking into the issue, and that’s the process moving forward now.
“The governor ultimately believes that the decision lies with the Board of Education. They’re given those powers for a reason, and they make that determination,” said Sam Coleman, a spokesman for McAuliffe.
He also pointed out that the Assembly’s legislation required the state board to define the term “sexually explicit,” while the proposed regulations leave that definition up to each local school board.
The governor “respects the autonomy of local school divisions to determine the definition of ‘sexually explicit,’ ” Coleman said.
About half of Virginia school divisions have a policy of sending parents advance warning of “sensitive or controversial materials” in the classroom, according to a state survey from 2013.
Most districts also have policies that permit parents to object to sensitive or controversial material, and some allow them to ask for alternative assignments.
But educators fear that labeling books “sexually explicit” will lead some parents to dismiss their educational value, said Sarah Crain, advocacy chair for the Virginia Association of Teachers of English and the literacy coordinator for Stafford County Public Schools.
“The big concern is when you take a label that has a very broad definition and you reduce a book or a work down to something that is a mere decontextualized fragment of the work . . . that actually impedes the ability for teachers and parents to have informed conversations,” Crain said.
She also said she worries that school districts will define “sexually explicit” too broadly, sweeping things such as classical Greek art and historical photos of disrobed Holocaust victims into the same category as “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the wildly popular erotic romance novel.
Laura Murphy, the Fairfax County parent who wanted “Beloved” removed, wrote the board in support of the proposed regulations and testified at a November meeting. She said many parents are too busy to thumb through the books on their children’s reading lists to know what’s in them, particularly when students can be assigned 10 or more books in a school year.
“There are so many different situations where parents are not able to keep up with the reading material,” Murphy said. “How in the world are they going to know what’s inside those books unless they’re notified beforehand?”
Murphy said she believes teachers should have to make the argument that material labeled “sexually explicit” has educational value.
“That burden is on the teacher to explain why it’s worthwhile and why it’s a good read and a valuable component of the child’s education,” Murphy said. “It’s just more transparency, full disclosure, let the parent become involved in the decision-making.”
Many school districts have exhaustive notification processes for parents when it comes to sex education, allowing parents to screen all teaching materials and opt their children out if they object. Murphy said the state should do the same for English courses.
Crain and others object to that comparison and lament that it is reducing works of literature to just their sexual content, rather than looking at what they might teach children beyond that.
The state board has been looking at the issue since Murphy and others raised it in 2013, said Assistant State Superintendent Cynthia Cave, who presented the proposed language to the board in November.
If the board decides at its Jan. 26 meeting to move ahead with the proposed language, that would start a rulemaking process that could take a year or more to complete. There will be extensive opportunities for public hearings and for review by the governor and attorney general, Cave said.
An earlier version of the language released on a state website drew hundreds of comments from the public. Most parents were supportive of the change, but teachers were overwhelmingly against it, according to state documents.
Gastanaga, of the ACLU, said she views the proposed regulation as unconstitutional in two ways. First, she said, it potentially infringes on the federal protection of free speech. The term sexually explicit is “vague, over-inclusive and potentially prejudicial,” the ACLU and six other free-speech groups complained in their letter to the board, arguing that the term could be used to describe works as varied as “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Brave New World.”
In addition, Gastanaga said that the rules would trample on the power the state Constitution gives to local school boards to set their own standards.
Opponents also raised questions about increasing the burden on overworked teachers by requiring them to develop an alternative lesson plan for pupils whose families demand it.
That’s a factor the board will take into account. “The board is sensitive to anything they feel is an additional burden on teachers,” Cave said.
She objected to the idea that the measure would infringe on free speech. “There’s nothing that says we’re going to ban these materials,” Cave said. “There’s nothing that says other students whose parents do not object may not use them. What’s important is to let parents know.”