School Boards and Book Debates

By Edwin C. Darden

A running joke among parents goes like this: You invest outrageous amounts of time and effort in the first year teaching your child to walk and talk. After that, you spend the next 17 years trying to persuade the lad to sit down and be quiet.

The same paradox applies to reading. Educators refer to reading as the “gateway skill,” the one ability that swings open endless possibilities for learning. From preschool to third grade, parents and educators stress repeatedly the importance of learning to read. Yet, we only want students to read what “we” want them to read.

Parents, school districts, board members, superintendents, and communities can have sharply different ideas about what is age-appropriate or even what is worthwhile. Therefore, it pays to have a clear, rigorous process for approving reading materials and an available forum where books can be legitimately challenged and further evaluated.

Problems commonly present themselves in one of two forms: textbooks or English literature. The former problems can stem from a view that the text is biased or incomplete, while Language Arts challenges almost always spring from the fact that great dramatic writing must have an edge. Citizens get offended, especially if they do not have the context of classroom discussion or understand the teacher’s curricular goal.

A book challenger has relatively few options from a legal perspective, but a person with a grudge over a book has at least three ways to cause misery to a school district. 

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