Reviews | Crackdowns on school speech in Texas, Florida and elsewhere are hurting education

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In Florida, some teachers are pulling books off the shelves in the classroom and disturbing to keep photos of their same-sex spouses on their desks. In a Texas school district, principals and librarians were briefly asked to remove 41 titles – including an adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary and the Bible – before a exam deemed them acceptable. As children return to school, educators aren’t just grappling with the national teacher shortage and an increase in student absenteeism. In many jurisdictions, they also have to navigate confusing new policies and proposals to restrict speech in educational institutions.

According to a report from PEN America, “educational gag orders” — legislation that limits talking or teaching in schools and colleges — have become much more common across the country. More than 130 bills have been introduced in 36 states this year, mostly related to content about race, gender and LGBTQ identities. Notably, many of these proposals include severe penalties, such as loss of funding and fines for institutions, and, for teachers, dismissal and even criminal prosecution. Republican lawmakers are behind the vast majority of these projects; only one proposal tracked by PEN America had a Democratic sponsor.

Nearly 20 such bills have been passed in the past two years, including Florida’s infamous Parental Rights in Education Act. Dubbed by critics the “don’t say gay” law, it prohibits schools from teaching students until third grade about topics related to gender identity and sexuality. Although it raised national alarm, it was just one example of a multi-state orient oneself.

School libraries have become a particular flashpoint. A number of new policies at the state and district levels make it easier to challenge books or require school districts to provide parents with lists of all new purchases. These add to an unprecedented wave of book bans: The American Library Association documented more than 700 challenges to school, library, and university materials in 2021, directed at more than 1,500 publications, mostly by Black and LGBTQ writers.

Of course, not all content is suitable for every age group and parents have an important role to play in education. Yet, taken together, these efforts have a huge chilling effect on schools. Because the rules are often vaguely written and rarely contain detailed review processes, educators are urged to avoid any material that might contain politically tense themes — a factor that experts say is at least partially responsible. the exodus of teachers in key states.

Students are also deprived of important opportunities to learn about society – and to see a wide range of identities and experiences reflected in lessons. A recent investigation of Rand Corp. found that 1 in 4 teachers had been told by school or district officials to limit discussions about race and racism. US history is also a frequent target of state legislators and school boards eager to promote a sanitized version of the nation’s past.

Education should be about introducing students to challenging ideas – and giving them the tools to confront and engage with those concepts in a thoughtful way. The rise of policies to silence teachers and whitewash curricula harms schools, students, and ultimately democracy.

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