By: Kate Lechtenberg
The Florida legislature has passed a bill that could have dramatic consequences for Florida students’ and teachers’ intellectual freedom, despite opposition from the Florida Library Association. Proponents of HB 989, which currently awaits the governor’s signature, claim that the bill improves transparency and gives parents a stronger voice in their children’s education. But we must ask questions about these claims.
As I read initial articles about the bill in the Orlando Sentinel and Fox 35 Orlando, five important questions went through my mind. So I spent about an hour researching online, and I found many reasons to question both the law itself and Florida politicians’ understanding of the issue on which they were legislating. As we watch state after state consider bills related to intellectual freedom issues, we all need to take up this type of citizen inquiry process so that we can hold our state legislators accountable.
1: What did Florida education statute require for objections to instructional materials before the passage of this bill?
A quick search online took me to a Florida Department of Education document titled “Florida Statutes K-20 Education Code Excerpts Pertaining to Instructional Materials,” and after searching for the word “objection,” I found a requirement on page 3 of the document that states, “Each district school board must adopt a policy regarding a parent’s objection to his or her child’s use of a specific instructional material, which clearly describes a process to handle all objections and provides for resolution.”
It’s a great sign that before this bill, every school already needed a policy for handling objections (which ALA documents call a “reconsideration policy”). But it is troubling that this new law seems to ignore the practices that were already in place. That leads to my next question.
2: What kinds of materials reconsideration policies existed in Florida schools before this new law?
I spent about 30 minutes searching online for school board policies in a few Florida school districts, and I quickly discovered one clear pattern: Florida policies governing how parents or community members can raise concerns about instructional or library materials in their communities are found in either the 2000 series under “instructional materials” or 9000 series under “complaints.” Searching for either of these phrases will help students, parents, teachers, and legislators locate the relevant school board policies for schools in their districts.
As with selection and reconsideration policies throughout the nation, some of the Florida policies I found were more detailed than others. Orange County’s policy requires a written complaint and the formation of review committee, as does Alachua County’s policy (#9130.01). Hillsborough County doesn’t specify a written form but simply states those with concerns may “contact the Superintendent.”
Miami-Dade County has the most thorough policy (#2150) of the four I reviewed, requiring written complaints and the formation of a clearly defined review committee. Procedures for the committee are spelled out in detail, and it is clear that Miami-Dade used ALA resources like the Workbook for Selection Policy Writing. Miami-Dade’s policies were mostly recently updated in 2011, two years after the school district won a major case in which the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that it could remove a picture book titled Vamos a Cuba because of inaccurate depictions of political conditions in Cuba.
In short, I can’t tell from news coverage whether Florida state legislators were aware of these policies, but it is clear that there are better models for clear policies than those proposed by HB 989. Starting with the ALA Workbook for Selection Policy Writing would benefit many districts.
3: Why didn’t the Florida legislators simply elevate and promote ALA-aligned reconsideration policies?
While it’s clear that some districts use ALA resources, the bill and related news coverage demonstrate that ALA selection and reconsideration resources may be the unintentionally best-kept secrets in educational and legal practice.
So the time is now: For all ALA resources related to challenges to library and instructional materials, start at the Challenge Support page. With one click, you’re on your way to a better reconsideration policy — no new laws or “hearing officers” (see below) required.
4: Why is an “unbiased and qualified hearing officer” (required in the new Florida law) necessary for reviewing objections to recently adopted materials?
Another aspect of the bill stipulates that, for materials that have been recently approved by the school board, a parent or resident may object within 30 days, and that objection will be heard by an “unbiased and qualified hearing officer” who does not work for the school (see the bottom of page 6 in the bill).
There’s little detail on who might fill this role, and, as a columnist in the Sun Sentinal joked, the “unbiased” part may be hard to come by: “Translation: Parents can bring complaints to conservative hearing officers who will help them get rid of the books they don’t want their kids seeing, instead of leaving the decision up to school boards which are often made up of liberal heathens.”
This nebulous role leaves many questions unanswered for students, parents, teachers, and schools. This is certainly an aspect of the new law that all those concerned with a student’s right to read and a parent’s right to clear school policy enacted by trained educators will need to follow. Parents need to demand answers about who will serve in this new role.
5: Why should residents of a school district who are not parents have the right to object to the use of instructional or library materials?
One of the key revisions contained in the new law is that not just parents but “residents” of the school district may lodge complaints. Why? No clear rationale is evident in the current media coverage, aside from a vague reference to the need to “close loopholes” to ensure residents’ ability to object.
On the other hand, the ALA’s “Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” clearly states that reading choices should remain with children and their parents:
“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that only parents and guardians have the right and the responsibility to determine their children’s—and only their children’s—access to library resources. Parents and guardians who do not want their children to have access to specific library services, materials, or facilities should so advise their children.”
Librarians and supporters of students’ right to read draw on this statement and other ALA resources to keep decisions about young readers’ book choices between youth and their parents or guardians. Community residents with a political agenda have no place in a parent and child’s reading choices.
If state legislators were more informed about the reconsideration policies already in place and the ALA resources available, Florida might have a very different law in place now. Parents, students, teachers, and librarians concerned about their students’ right to read should ask these questions and demand informed answers from their legislators.
Kate Lechtenberg is in her first year of doctoral studies in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Iowa. After teaching high school English for 10 years and working as a school librarian for four years, her research focuses on how affect, emotion, and morality intersect with the structural constraints of educational policies and standards. Lechtenberg teaches a young adult literature course for preservice teachers and English majors and a course on collection development for preservice teacher librarians in the School of Library and Information Science, and she is currently serving on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.