“The Ed Scare” — that’s how freedom of expression advocacy organization PEN America describes the sweeping restrictions targeting classrooms across the country.
A riff on the Red Scare, the panic that spread during the Cold War over the dangers of communism, the Ed Scare underscores that public education faces multiple threats — from book bans to what PEN America calls education gag orders and educational intimidation bills. Collectively, these policies foster censorship, limit instruction about race, gender and sexuality and subject educators to extreme scrutiny while undermining their expertise.
Book banning, then, is just one part of a broad effort to chill the free exchange of ideas in K-12 schools. But it is getting worse: Public school book bans rose by 33 percent in the 2022-23 school year compared with a year earlier.
That data comes from the PEN America report, “Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor,” released for Banned Books Week, which emphasizes the importance of “free and open access to information.” With support from organizations including the American Library Association, Children’s Book Council, Freedom to Read Foundation, National Council of Teachers of English and PEN America, Banned Books Week takes place through Saturday, ending with Let Freedom Read Day.
“More kids are losing access to books, more libraries are taking authors off the shelves and opponents of free expression are pushing harder than ever to exert their power over students as a whole,” said PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel in a statement. “Those who are bent on the suppression of stories and ideas are turning our schools into battlegrounds, compounding post-pandemic learning loss, driving teachers out of the classroom and denying the joy of reading to our kids.”
Five states — Florida, Texas, Missouri, Utah and Pennsylvania — lead the nation in book bans documented by PEN America. With 1,406 bans, the Sunshine State accounted for more than 40 percent of the 3,362 instances of book bans PEN America recorded for the 2022-23 school year. Altogether, bans over that period took aim at 1,557 unique titles and books by over 1,480 authors, illustrators and translators.
Eleven books — including “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Looking for Alaska” by John Green, “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Mass and “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe — were subject to up to 33 bans each during the 2022-23 school year, making them the most banned. The books most often singled out are young adult novels with protagonists who are girls, queer and/or nonbinary. Forty-eight percent of frequently banned books depict violence and abuse, particularly sexual assault, and 42 percent discuss issues such as mental health, bullying, suicide, substance abuse, sexuality and puberty. In addition, PEN America found that 33 percent include sex scenes; 30 percent include characters of color or discuss race and racism; 30 percent include LGBTQ+ characters or themes; and 29 percent focus on grief and death.
“Time and time again, we see the way in which the term obscenity is being [used] to restrict LGBTQ+ topics,” said Kasey Meehan, PEN America’s Freedom to Read program director. “We see the way in which terms like ‘harmful to minors’ are being used to restrict any sort of ‘divisive topics’ or instruction on race and racism.”
Shaun Harper, executive director of the Race and Equity Center at the University of Southern California, said limiting classroom discussions or books about race, gender and sexuality will not only affect students of color and queer youth but also straight White students robbed of the chance to read materials about people from diverse backgrounds.
“There are White Americans who will be denied the truth about America’s racial past and present,” he said. “They will grow up to become elected officials, CEOs, teachers, health care providers and so on who have been denied an opportunity to recognize their own implicit racial bias. They will lack cultural literacy. They will engage in the exacerbation of racial harm, racial stereotypes, racial microaggressions and racial inequities in their work, because they were denied in 2023 when they were schoolchildren the opportunity to get ahead of those racial realities.”
The vast majority (80 percent) of school districts nationwide that banned books are located near chapters of organizations such as Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and Parents’ Rights in Education that are notorious for promoting censorship and curriculum restrictions in schools. A website called Book Looks, created by a Moms for Liberty member, helps parents screen purportedly objectionable content in books before their children read the material. PEN America has linked the site to book bans nationally.
In August, Iowa’s Mason City Community School District made headlines for using artificial intelligence technology ChatGPT to ban books.
“In some ways, we see this as wildly dystopian,” Meehan said. “AI tools will only speed up censorship.”
On the other hand, Meehan said that Iowa’s Senate File 496, which took effect in July, prompted the school district to begin weeding out books because the legislation bars instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation.
“It requires that school libraries have age-appropriate collections, which by the state’s definition would exclude any book that contains sexual content regardless of grade level,” Meehan said. “It’s just this broadening of the way in which any book with any description or depiction of sex has to be removed from districts in Iowa.”
Nationally, nearly 400 “educational intimidation” bills were introduced in states from January 2021 to June 2023. This legislation may not directly mandate censorship but tends to focus on “parental rights” or “curriculum transparency.” They serve to expand the ways that parents, politicians and community members can challenge curricula, paving the way for book bans and lesson plan restrictions as a result. Thirty-nine educational intimidation bills were enacted during that timeframe, PEN America reported in its analysis published in August, “Educational Intimidation: How ‘Parental Rights’ Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn.”
“The educational intimidation bills, coupled with educational gag orders, coupled with book bans are a suite of mechanisms in which free expression is being threatened,” Meehan said. “All of this puts an extra burden on public schools that are having to navigate increasingly politicized school environments, increasingly politicized school boards. Already, we know many schools are facing teacher shortages, so this is just another level of burden that is put onto public schools through legislation.”
Although educational intimidation bills may be introduced under the guise of parental rights, Meehan said they disempower parents, most of whom oppose censorship, while empowering a vocal minority to make decisions that affect all students, educators or librarians in a school.
Many educational intimidation bills require teachers to post instructional material on public websites to make it easier for people to get books removed from schools and broaden definitions of obscenity beyond the legal definition “to really mean all sorts of different things,” Meehan said.
In Florida, Indiana and several other states, educational intimidation bills require schools to share the gender expression of students with parents. By opening “the door for vocal minorities to have an outsized influence in district- and school-level instruction,” Meehan said, these bills encourage educators to practice self-censorship. In states including Florida, Missouri, Virginia and Iowa, the threat of arrest or discipline increases pressure not to broach subjects related to sexuality.
“When we look at the effects of these types of legislations, we do see some districts responding in an overly cautious way,” Meehan said. “They’re taking the broadest interpretation of these types of provisions in this type of legislation, and they’re acting out of just extreme caution.”
In Tennessee, for example, PEN America learned that an art teacher no longer gives lessons on artists Frida Kahlo and Keith Haring because state legislation requires teachers to notify parents about any instruction related to LGBTQ+ content, so they can opt their children out of such lessons.
Sarah Dean, a queer eighth-grade English teacher at a public charter school in Nashville, has not allowed educational intimidation legislation to silence her. During the 2022-23 school year, she organized the first Pride Week at her school and launched a Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club for students there, using a $10,000 grant from It Gets Better — a nonprofit that supports LGBTQ+ youth globally — to initiate these efforts.
“One of the hurdles we found last year in forming a GSA was our clubs are hosted after school, and because parents have to sign a permission slip for clubs, that became a barrier for entry for a lot of students who didn’t want to ask their parents for permission to join a club that discussed LGBTQ+ issues,” Dean said.
Three students consistently attended the club since it started at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. Dean said that she would be fine if the club remained that small, but she’s sure there are far more than three LGBTQ+ students at her school and who would benefit from being part of GSA.
“Obviously, I want to reach as many students as possible there,” she said.
To show queer students that they have support at school, Dean and her colleagues have displayed Pride flags in classrooms. Teachers have also worn Progress Pride Flag pins and pronoun pins attached to their school lanyards. Some students have come out to her, Dean said, and a student who had bullied a transgender classmate changed course and made an effort to use the correct pronouns. Just a few years ago, Dean said, students often insulted others by saying, “That’s so gay.”
“Now that we’ve implemented some of this programming, kids are not earning social cachet from putting down queer people,” she said. “It’s not cool anymore in our school, not to say that those attitudes don’t exist. But I think kids are realizing, at the very least, those are not attitudes they can express and get away with.”
Dean, however, said that she felt real fear when angry parents pushed back on her efforts. She wondered if she was unnecessarily making herself a target. In the end, her administration stood by her and dealt with the parents, she said. In addition to showing support to the queer community, Dean teaches books that address race and racism such as “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” She’s created a unit about Black Lives Matter and the global protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. Given Tennessee’s ban on critical race theory and the teaching of divisive concepts, some educators would steer clear of such topics for fear of running afoul of the law.
“I want to be able to provide holistic, real education for students that isn’t trying to hide reality and help them critically think about the world and the issues our country faces,” Dean said. “Our school as a whole is able to teach things related to race, gender, sexuality. It’s not always overt, but we’re able to have real conversations with our students.”
Students are having vastly different experiences in class depending on the policies of their states or school boards, and Harper predicted those differences will fuel inequity. Book bans and educational intimidation laws deprive students of equal access to the information they need to understand the nation’s history. Consequently, Harper believes they will lead to misunderstandings about race and breed conflict between groups.
“So if you were a young American who becomes an adult who did have access to these very important books, but you’re working alongside colleagues who did not have that same access, those colleagues are going to be incredibly miseducated,” Harper said. “They’re going to make racial mistakes that are not only annoying but also costly in all sorts of ways, and it’s going to lead to tremendous frustration between those who were privileged enough to have access to these very important learning resources versus those who did not.”
Harper said that it’s important for parents and concerned community members to challenge policies that foster censorship and intimidate educators.
Meehan agreed, pointing out that parents can speak out against bans at school boards and contact their legislators about them. Activists against censorship in schools have scored multiple wins, including the fact that far more bills that aim to limit free and open discussion in education have failed than been enacted. Moreover, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law in September that prohibits book bans and textbook censorship in schools after some school boards in the state — particularly the board of Temecula Valley Unified School District — voted to block books with LGBTQ+ content and critical race theory.
Harper would like to see a groundswell of activism against book bans and curriculum restrictions, arguing that many Americans underestimated that the dialogue about systemic inequality that swept the nation after George Floyd’s murder would provoke a fierce backlash.
“Book bans are not new,” Harper said. “However, the intensity right now is unprecedented. So what we’re seeing three years later is a continued allergic reaction to that conversation that many Americans were not prepared or interested in having.”
Image: Michael Dziedzic/unsplash