This is when we first discovered that Nixa's situation and U-Turn's efforts were being noticed on the world stage.
... As a leading campaign group against this, would you be willing to answer a few questions I had?
XXXXXX - sure. Thanks for your interest. Please understand that we’re a very small, local grassroots organization. We have no outside funding, and no organizational ties to any outside groups. What little money we’ve spent has been supplied by individual members on an ad hoc basis. I’ll do my best to represent the views of our group, but we don’t really have an official spokesperson. I asked for permission to respond to you from the rest of the core group that founded U-Turn in Education, and they’ve agreed to let me do so.
- What are your main concerns from the situation you’re seeing in school districts?
Locally, teacher pay is terrible, getting worse, driving great teachers out of the profession, and making it very difficult to recruit new teachers. This is a particularly big issue in the state of Missouri right now, and even Nixa School District, despite its stellar reputation, is affected by it badly. I suspect the situation you’re asking about, though, is the book banning issue. Main concerns about book banning in our local public schools include that administration, the school board, and state legislature are ignoring expert guidance from very highly trained librarians. These school libraries are curated by skilled professionals (usually with Masters in Library Science degrees) and represent selections driven by their expert training, literary awards, market forces, and also the anticipated needs of students as they prepare for what the future decades will likely bring them. Instead, changes to what is being allowed in school libraries seem to be politically driven, and in opposition to this professional guidance. These changes also appear to be driven from the top down by national organizations with strong conservative leanings, and are represented by astroturfed groups like No Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty, and BookLooks. Their motivations don’t appear to be educational, but political. If you look at the types of books that get challenged, and especially the ones that ultimately get removed or restricted, there appears to be a strong bias against books that represent the experiences of racial or ethnic minorities, and also against the LGBTQIA+ community. Those groups’ numbers and acceptance or inclusion into society is growing, and we think many of the local ultra-conservatives are scared of those changes, and are willing to sacrifice some of our students’ preparation for that future as a result of their fears. It’s as if they think that if they don’t prepare students for the future, it won’t happen.
- Have you seen an increase in challenges to school literature? Keeping this in mind how do you feel about the future of school education?
Challenges to school literature? As in parts of the classroom curriculum? No. There have been no challenges to that kind of curricular content recently that we’re aware of, but we hear rumors and have seen online discussions of local groups about course content. We don’t know of any actual action taken on that locally yet. Then again, the local group of book banners (we call them BOBs for short - as in “Banners Of Books” or “Burners Of Books” if it ever comes to that around here) also said they weren’t going to target our local public libraries. That’s turned out not to be the case, and they are now trying to affect changes in curation in our county’s public library system, too.
The challenges and removals and restrictions of books in our local school district have been in our school libraries (nearly all in the high school), and none of them have been assigned reading. Nobody is being required to read any of the books in question. They are (or were) simply an available resource for the students who want them. There has been an explosion of challenges to the school library’s books in the last couple of years or so, and that’s been consistent with many places throughout the U.S.. You can find more about the increase in frequency of book bans and challenges through the websites of organizations like PEN America (the American center of PEN International, which is headquartered in London) and the ALA, (American Library Association) and their group, Unite Against Book Bans.
As for how we feel about this in regards to the future of public education, I’d say we’re disappointed generally, and some of our group members are very disheartened. To see politicians using public schools for posturing and to try to drive a deeper wedge between already divided groups for their own benefit is frightening - especially because they’ve been somewhat successful at it lately. They don’t appear to be interested in providing good educations for our young citizens. We’ve even heard rumblings that seem plausible that they are trying to damage our public education system so as to be able to privatize more of it. To accomplish that, they appear willing to ignore students’ First Amendment rights and their right to read. This strikes us as fundamentally unethical and un-American.
- Where do you feel this form of censorship sits in a broader conversation about ‘Culture wars’?
It’s a weapon, and a terrible one to wield. Its use is contradictory to what we as a nation are supposed to value very highly - our First Amendment rights, and those same rights for others. The willingness of elements of our far political right to infringe on certain citizens’ rights in this way because they have a problem with accepting the existence of some books in a school library for use by “others” tells us a lot about the severity of this dispute. It also tells us a lot about who they are and what they do and do not value, and gives us insight into the plights of the groups they are attempting to target.
We at U-Turn in Education feel that every parent should have the right to be involved in the selection of reading material for their child. In fact, that’s exactly the system and practice that we used to have here. Parents could simply email or call the school library and notify librarians that they didn’t want their own child to be able to check out any specific title. The high school’s entire library catalog is available online for parents, so they could determine exactly what they wanted to control access to for their own children. What parents shouldn’t have is the ability to make that same sort of choice for other people’s kids. Another way that we describe this, is that U-Turn in Education is a strong supporter of educational opportunities for all. We want all students to have access to the resources that are required for them to develop fully and to become capable, competent people. We want them to better understand the world that they’re going to find themselves in, and also to better understand their roles in that future world. Censoring materials from the school’s library removes some of those educational opportunities, and is detrimental not only for the individual students directly affected, but for society as a whole. Our views on this issue dovetail very well with why the First Amendment and the right to read are so important to us all.
As for how our local book bans relate to the “culture wars” you described, it always seems that cultural stuff like this works like a pendulum, and public opinion and influence swings back and forth. How hard and far the pendulum is going to swing this time before society pushes back enough to reverse this destructive course has us worried. The small, but very vocal groups moving things hard to the right this time seem very riled up from the top down and are feeling empowered at the moment. At the same time, we hear from many other parents whose values align with those of our group, but are afraid to speak up in public on behalf of the students due to fear of reprisal. We also hear from many teachers who approve and agree with our work, but are afraid for their jobs and safety if they speak up. In fact, I don’t recall hearing of any local teacher who disagrees with our stance. Ours really does seem to be the majority opinion, but we’ll see how the upcoming elections go. For instance, traditionally only about 30% of our local school district’s teachers vote, and only about 50% of our teachers live in the school district. We have an election coming up on April 4th that includes school board positions. Whatever the outcome of that election, the discussion will certainly continue.
- Have you ever faced personal backlash for your advocacy on this issue? (Please share however much you feel comfortable with.)
Yes. I have heard and read false, disgusting, and potentially slanderous and libelous rumors about myself and others in this group. At a school board meeting last May there was much public comment with a lot of yelling, threats and insults, calls for people to be fired (especially our award winning and highly acclaimed librarians) and just all around terrible behavior. There were even taunts and insults directed at the students who spoke at that meeting, all of whom were against the censorship. It was so bad that the school board created new rules of conduct following that embarrassment. The city of Nixa and the school district in particular is normally a very nice, pleasant place to be and to raise a family. We generally get along here very well, but some of the tension from that night has remained. Behavior at those meetings has improved dramatically, but there’s still been some minor issues from the BOBs at school board meetings. We also still see and hear comments online and in person accusing people from our group of being “groomers” and “pedophiles” (obviously untrue) and asking why specific librarians aren’t fired. It’s ridiculous, and the astroturfers have spun the local BOBs out of control.
XXXXXX, the following goes beyond the scope of your questions, but I’d also like to point out that U-Turn in Education recently won the Missouri Association of School Librarians’ (MASL) Intellectual Freedom Award. I will attach a copy of our press release. After we were told by MASL that we won that award, MASL announced that they are suing the state of Missouri over some legislation that affects them, and relates to the book bans. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is representing them. Here’s a link to a radio broadcast explaining the situation, and it does a very good job of communicating the info. While we’re not involved in that lawsuit, I know enough of the mechanics of the legal changes and the situation for the state’s librarians to know that this is accurate and clearly represented info.
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