On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott demanded that “pornographic and obscene material” be removed from public schools. It’s the latest effort from conservative legislators to crack down on material they deem offensive, with critics condemning the push as an effort to censor education.
In a letter, Abbott tells the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) that they have an obligation to ensure no child is exposed to “inappropriate content” in schools. Parents, he said, are “rightfully angry,” although he didn’t offer any specific examples.
"A growing number of parents of Texas students are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries that are extremely inappropriate in the public education system," Abbott wrote. "The most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance that have no place in the Texas public education system.”
But the directive reportedly confused TASB officials since they don’t have the authority to regulate school districts, nor do they set library book standards.
It’s interesting that the governor would send a letter to an entity that doesn’t have any influence over school library books, said Rena Honea, president of Dallas’ Alliance/AFT teachers union. School districts already have a process for dealing with parental complaints and reviewing books.
Plus, libraries have been packed with such material for years, so it makes Honea wonder why so much attention has suddenly been focused on the issue. To her, it looks like a “political ploy” to sway voters to their side.
“I see this as Governor Abbott just joining the political parade, tooting his own horn on race and sex issues, to score points for the very crowded primary he’s got coming up in the spring,” she said.
In recent weeks, certain North Texas parents have sounded the alarm over what can be checked out in their children’s school library.
“They should be taking care of our state and leave the education to those that are professionals and experts.” – Rena Honea, Alliance/AFT president
Recently, Keller ISD removed a school library book after parents complained that it contained sexually explicit imagery. In a tweet, a mother wrote that the book was “legitimate visual porn, a felony offense.”
The book, Gender Queer: A Memoir, depicts author Maia Kobabe’s experience involving sexual and gender identity. A handful of cartoon images in the book became the center of the controversy: some depict sexual activities, such as fellatio and intercourse, and nudity.
“Queer youth are often forced to look outside their own homes, and outside the education system, to find information on who they are,” Kobabe wrote in response in a Washington Post op-ed. “Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies, and health.”
In a statement, Keller ISD assured parents the book would no longer be available in the district's libraries, saying that "one copy of the book in question was once available at a single high school library."
"There was no indication from the book’s description that it contained graphic illustrations; however, once the librarian and campus administrators became aware of the images, they immediately removed the book," the statement explained. "Illustrations of this sort should never be available in the school environment."
The district added that it was updating its review process for books available on its campuses and in its libraries.
Meanwhile, Republican state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth launched an investigation into school districts’ books last month. He released a list of some 850 titles, such as those centered on race and sexuality, including sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS.
The list includes The Cider House Rules, The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel and An African American and Latinx History of the United States.
Krause’s letter is “disturbing” and an example of “political overreach into the classroom,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement. There’s nothing in state law that allows lawmakers to “conduct this type of witch hunt.”
Many critics have pointed out that both Abbott and Krause have elections coming up. Abbott will face Republican primary challengers this spring in his bid for reelection, while Krause has announced he’s running for Texas attorney general.
Schools and local school boards have professionals who can handle parental concerns over library books, said Rob D’Amico, the communications director for Texas AFT. They don’t need a state official who’s running for political office to develop a list of books he finds offensive.
“It really was a political stunt,” he said. “But unfortunately, even stunts like that — and what was done with Greg Abbott’s letter — can sometimes get traction and cause what we see as these culture wars locally.”
The definition of “pornography” is subjective, D’Amico added. To some, the mere mention of sex in a novel could be considered pornographic. To others, the bar's a lot higher. (D'Amico declined to specifically comment on Gender Queer.)
Alliance/AFT’s Honea says she isn't familiar with Gender Queer. "I believe the definition of 'porn' needs to be clarified before major decisions are made that have the potential to alter our educational foundation," she argued. "As for the way the district responded, their audience is the taxpayers and parents of the students. They have to respond accordingly if a fair and open process was used to make that decision."
On a broader level, Honea wishes that politicians would just let teachers do their jobs. “These people are not educators; they’re not in the business of education,” she said. “They should be taking care of our state and leave the education to those that are professionals and experts.”