How expanded parental access to learning materials is impacting schools, libraries - AZEdNews
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How expanded parental access to learning materials is impacting schools, libraries

Students At Whitter Elementary School In Washington State Reading Books In Their Library. Photo Courtesy Washington State Library

Parents’ access to review curriculum and textbooks schools are considering adopting, as well as to know what books are in school libraries was expanded by the Arizona Legislature last session as a result of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the law about books in school and classroom libraries going into effect in January, school districts have been seeking guidance and doing what needs to be done now to comply.

HB 2439 goes into effect in January, and it will apply directly to school libraries. For 60 days after purchase approval, lists of ordered materials must be posted on the school’s and district’s website. Parents will be able to access a catalog of items in the school library as well as a list of books their child checks out.

Several school districts asked for more guidance on the new law and Arizona School Boards Association‘s Policy Services team created a resource for members “that actually has a letter to parents where you can just fill in the timelines and there’s also a checklist in there for administrators,” said Nick Buzan, director of legal and policy services for ASBA.

If a school district intends on purchasing a book in early January, then they’d send that letter out to parents seven days before that 60-day review period begins, Buzan said.

“There are some exemptions for this policy. If you don’t have a full-time librarian, then you’re exempted – you don’t have to post every book,” Buzan said. “The other exemption was if you have an agreement with a county library or a city library or a couple of other types of libraries, then you also don’t have to follow this law.”

“Some of what we’ve seen in community libraries comes from a campaign by national organizations to ban and challenge books with LGTBQ+ themes and that include BIPOC characters,” said Erin MacFarlane, chair of the Arizona Library Association’s (AzLA) Legislative Committee.

“This law is a cumbersome law that adds a lot of clerical work to processes that were already in place and working,” MacFarlane said.

Expanded parental access to learning materials

Parental access and school policies implementing the laws were highlighted at Arizona School Boards Association’s Law Conference.

“When people are unaware of how the process actually works, when people are unaware of their curriculum, that unawareness creates a fear, and it’s so much easier to be afraid and critical of the unknown,” said Heidi Vega, director of communications for ASBA.

This cooperation and collaboration with parents is having results.

“By wide margins – and regardless of their political affiliation – parents express satisfaction with their children’s schools and what is being taught in them,”according to a recent NPR survey.

Two Arizona school districts shared their experience.

“I know this has been a national trend, but we haven’t seen any requests here as of late,” said Megan Sterling, executive director of community relations for Tempe Union High School District.

Similarly, Brittany Franklin, director for strategic partnerships & communications for Tempe Elementary School District #3, said the district has “not yet experienced” calls for “book banning” either.

While this has worked for some school districts so far, this is not entirely the case for all.

The Arizona Library Association has “seen an increase in book challenges from the community in many libraries across the state,” McFarlane said.

“The Arizona Library Association (AzLA) is strongly opposed to efforts across the nation and the state of Arizona to remove controversial material from the shelves of school and public libraries,” MacFarlane said.

How schools are complying with the law prohibiting sexually explicit materials

HB 2495 became law in Arizona in September, barring the use of sexually explicit materials in public schools. MacFarlane explained that school districts across the state are planning for implementation, and are already interpreting this law differently.

Without considering the content in the context of the legislation, some schools are removing books from the shelves based on lists of prohibited books. For books they believe to be against the law, some schools are creating a distinct section. Others are including a line in their permission slips asking parents to permit students to check out any books they choose.

“Yet still more schools interpret the law to apply to classroom usage only, and are not applying it to the school library. The law was written vaguely intentionally, to allow schools to remove items from the shelf at will,” MacFarlane said.

After school districts asked for additional guidance on complying with the new law, ASBA Policy Services created a guidance document for members that includes having the curriculum specialist first do an audit of school materials then have a discussion with teachers, Buzan said.

“It sounds like a lot of work, but it can be broken up based on the different departments of your school,” Buzan said. 

Next, determine whether an exemption applies to the learning materials. If a teacher thinks the material they’d like to include in a lesson has serious literary or educational value, “then you have to obtain parental consent,” Buzan said.

A curriculum specialist or teacher can send out a form to parents to obtain parental consent and “explain the value of the material and explain the statute,” Buzan said.

In addition, the curriculum specialist or teacher are required to create an alternative assignment for a student whose family does not provide consent, Buzan said.

Students’ viewpoints

What do students think about this?

A good example of this would be Board of Education Island Tree School District v. Pico, which Jessica S. Sanchez, a partner at Udall Shumway who focuses on education law and represents district and charter schools throughout the state, highlighted at ASBA’s Law Conference.

High school senior Steven Pico and four other middle and high school students brought the lawsuit against the school board after the district removed nine books, including Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Langston Hughes’ Best Short Stories by Negro Writers, after a parent group complained.

“We don’t just have a right to our ideas, we also have a right to be exposed to ideas,” Sanchez said the students said in the lawsuit.

The Arizona Library Association agrees with the students.

They acknowledge that not every reader is going to like the same books, but it is no individual’s or groups’ right to decide if a book is or isn’t appropriate for someone else’s child.

“The freedom to hold, receive, and disseminate ideas without restriction is an integral component of a democratic society, and is protected by our First Amendment rights,” MacFarlane said.