Republican 2024 hopeful Ron DeSantis is ‘breaking ground’ on schoolbook bans

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — As he competes for the Republican presidential nomination, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is touting a series of measures he has pushed that have led to an increase in banned or restricted books, not just in schools. Florida but in a growing number of other conservative states.

Last year, Florida became the first in a wave of red states to enact laws making it easier for parents to question books in school libraries that they consider pornographic, inappropriately addressing racial issues, or otherwise inappropriate. way for students.

Books caught up in Florida regulations include explicit graphic novels about growing up LGBTQ+, a children’s book based on a true story of two male penguins raising a chick at a zoo, and “The Bluest Eye,” an award-winning novel. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison which includes descriptions of child sexual abuse. Certain books covering racial themes have also been pulled from library shelves, sometimes temporarily, while school administrators try to assess what material is allowed under the new rules.

The day before DeSantis entered the presidential race earlier this week, a K-8 school in Miami-Dade County placed Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” on a shortlist for elementary school students after that a parent complained about. The reasons for the objection to the poem, which Gorman read during the inauguration of President Joe Biden, were unclear. The book version remains available to high school students, but Gorman criticized the decision to restrict it to younger grades, saying it robbed “kids of the opportunity to find their voices in literature.”

READ MORE: How many book bans have been attempted in your state? Use this map to find out

While efforts to ban books or censor educational material have cropped up sporadically over the years, critics and supporters credit DeSantis with inspiring a new wave of legislation in other conservative states to regulate the books available in schools and sometimes even in public libraries. The number of attempts to ban or restrict books in the US last year was the highest in the 20 years that the American Library Association has been tracking such efforts.

EveryLibrary, a national political action committee, said it is tracking at least 121 different proposals filed in state legislatures this year targeting libraries, librarians, educators and access to materials. The group said 39 of those proposals would allow for criminal prosecution.

“It’s really breaking ground,” said Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the Florida-based conservative parent group Moms for Liberty, whose members have filed challenges against books in libraries in several states. “What Ron DeSantis does that I think is effective is that he uses all the levers of power to achieve long-term change.”

“Other governors,” Justice said, “are paying attention and following suit.”

In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a law, which goes into effect this summer, that could impose criminal penalties on librarians who knowingly provide “harmful” materials to minors. The law would also establish a process for the public to challenge the materials and request that they be relocated to a section that minors cannot access.

“It’s a wicked world when we talk about trying to criminalize librarians,” said Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock, who is expected to sue over the Arkansas law.

LOOK: Judy Blume describes the latest wave of book bans and censorship as ‘disgusting’ and ‘fascist’

In Indiana, by July 1, school libraries will be required to post a list of the books they offer and provide a complaint process for community members under a law Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb signed this month. In Texas, a bill creating new standards for banning books in schools that the government considers too explicit has been sent to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

In Oklahoma, the state school board has approved new rules that ban “pornographic materials and sexualized content” in school libraries and allow parents to file formal complaints. The rules still must be approved by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.

DeSantis insists the books aren’t actually “banned” from schools in his state, preferring to call the forced removal of some books “curation options that are consistent with state standards.”

“There hasn’t been a single book banned in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said during a live Twitter appearance Wednesday when announcing his campaign. He later said that “our mantra in Florida is education, not indoctrination.”

Librarians, free-speech advocates and some parents and educators say the push is being driven by a small conservative minority that has big sway in Republican primaries like the one DeSantis is now competing in.

“This is all part of his plan to run for president, and he believes his denigration of the books and what goes on in public schools is his path to the presidency,” said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association. , the state’s main teachers’ union. .

Kasey Meehan, who runs the Freedom to Read program at the writers’ organization PEN America, said that when books are attacked in Florida, they then become the subject of complaints from parents in other states.

“It’s something that continues to cause alarm among people who advocate for the freedom to read or for a diversity of knowledge, ideas and books to be available to students across the country,” Meehan said.

READ MORE: Iowa law limits gender identity instruction and bans books depicting sexual acts in school libraries

Earlier this month, PEN sued the Escambia school district in Florida over the removal of 10 books, including “The Bluest Eye” and “Lucky,” a best-selling memoir by Alice Sebold about her rape when she was 18. years.

There have been book challenges in schools for decades: “The Bluest Eye” has been under attack in several states for years, long before DeSantis became governor. But the restrictions accelerated in Florida after DeSantis signed bills last year that banned discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, a ban that has since been extended to the present day. grade 12. She also created a mechanism for parents to challenge books in school libraries and focused on how race is taught in Florida schools.

Many teachers and districts complain that the standards in the laws are so vague that they don’t know which books could put them in legal jeopardy.

Michael Woods, a special education teacher in Palm Beach, said new rules requiring him to catalog books in his classroom led him to clear out a small library he had set up where students could choose to read something that interested them. Now those volumes are stored in a box that he has hidden in his closet for fear of getting into trouble.

“That kind of positive connection to reading is gone,” he said.

Individual book challenges may come from a fairly small segment of the population, according to PEN and the American Library Association, which track requests to check out books. The library association said that 40% of all requests questioned 100 or more books at a time.

Raegan Miller of Florida Freedom to Read, a group fighting book restrictions, said she has discussed education issues with other parents of all political persuasions for years, and no one has ever complained about inappropriate material in their schools. children. She maintains that the topic has been invented by a small group of conservative activists.

“Do you really think that we are all happily leaving our children to Marxist indoctrination and pornography?” Miller said. “You only hear this stuff at school board meetings.”

Moms for Liberty, which has 285 chapters, has a strong presence at school board meetings in the state and across the country. He has also successfully endorsed several school board candidates.

Justice, the group’s co-founder, notes that the books are still available in public libraries and bookstores. The question, he said, is whether it’s appropriate for taxpayer-funded schools to provide them to children.

Some books don’t belong in certain settings, he said: “A seminary library would have different books than a medical school library would.”

It is local elected officials, he added, who must determine what is appropriate.

“That’s representative government,” Justice said.

Associated Press writers Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City and Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis contributed to this report.