Why Secret Commissions Decide Which Books Are Banned From Texas Schools?

For evidence of the damage caused by the moral panic over school library books, turn to Keller ISD for Exhibit A.

When a parent in this school district challenges a book in a classroom or school library, the district convenes a committee of staff, parents and other community members to review the book. Each book challenge asks for a separate commission. The decisions of the committees are final, but appeals can be made to the school board.

In other words, these are not just recommendations. These ad hoc committees have the power to decide whether a book stays or goes and, in Keller ISD at least, they can make their decisions in secret. The district is blocking the release of the names of the people serving on the committees, fearing hostility and even criminal investigation. Books dealing with race and sexuality have been criticized by state officials, with Governor Greg Abbott threatening to prosecute those responsible for “pornographic material” in public schools.

We think Keller ISD is wrong about hiding information about his commissions. Yet the district’s concerns are a sad reflection of sordid politics poisoning good faith efforts by schools to find consensus on controversial matters.

Keller ISD is not alone in having these “reconsideration committees.” A review of education policies in other North Texas school districts, including Dallas, shows that similar committees are authorized to handle formal parental book complaints. A school district is right for parents and community members to provide feedback on what is age appropriate. But it’s a mistake to give a group of volunteers the resulting power to decide which books to remove from public school libraries, while shielding them from basic government transparency.

The exterior of the Oak Lawn Kroger supermarket on Cedar Springs Road in Dallas on Tuesday, January 26, 2021.

In a letter challenging our colleague Talia Richman’s request for the names of people who participate in book challenge committees, a Keller ISD attorney argued that committee members may reasonably fear scrutiny, social media posts, and outside forces such as pressure from the governor.

“The public comments at school board meetings demonstrate a level of passion around this topic that is sometimes overwhelming,” reads the letter, noting that people will be discouraged from volunteering on the book challenge committees because of possible harassment and retaliation.

The bullying of school officials and parents is the depressing result of the culture war waged over how we talk about race and sex in class. We are disappointed that our governor and other politicians have fueled hysteria rather than calming the mood so that schools and their communities can have respectful conversations about how to deal with thorny topics.

But the fact that book challenge committees deal with controversial topics, that emotions run high, and that they are tentative in nature shouldn’t exempt their rosters from going public under the state’s open government laws. Other volunteer groups that debate controversial issues for local governments, such as zoning plans, make their decisions publicly.

Government power and public control go hand in hand. If districts don’t want to reveal who sits on their book-challenge committees, they should find another way of parent involvement that doesn’t leave the final decisions in the hands of anonymous volunteers.

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