California pushing back on school book bans

A stack of books in Sacramento. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters |

While some states have been banning books by the hundreds, California appears headed in the opposite direction — enacting a law that would penalize local school boards that block any book reflecting the state’s diversity.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is poised to sign Assembly Bill 1078, which is intended to prevent school boards from banning books based solely on the books’ inclusion of history or culture related to Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, LGBTQ people or other groups. It expands the state’s existing education code requiring schools to include the experiences of racial, ethnic and LGBTQ groups in curriculum.

“(This bill) offers a clear statement from the Legislature and governor about California’s commitment to free inquiry and non-discrimination in our public schools,” said UCLA education professor John Rogers, who’s studied book bans. “That’s always been important, but it’s particularly important now, as we’re seeing efforts in some areas to challenge the role of the public school as an instrument to promote the ideals of inclusion and diverse democracy.”

The bill follows a much-publicized effort in Temecula, in Riverside County, to block an elementary social studies textbook that includes a supplemental lesson on San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the gay rights icon who was assassinated in 1978. The Temecula Valley Unified board in June voted to ban the textbook, with the majority arguing that lessons about LGBTQ rights and history are not appropriate for children. 

Newsom intervened, threatening to send the textbook — which had already been approved by the state and Temecula teachers — to students directly and bill the district. The board then reversed course and agreed to adopt the materials.

But the events in Temecula are not what inspired the bill’s author, Assemblymember Corey Jackson, a Democrat from Moreno Valley. He said it was Florida that drove him to it. According to a database compiled by PEN America, Florida school districts, under a law signed by Gov. Rick DeSantis, have banned more than 500 books, including novels by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and biographies of baseball great Hank Aaron.

“These disgusting tactics are part of a national strategy by conservatives to literally retell history to not reflect the truth about people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ,” Jackson said.

“We have to take a stand, and prevent what’s happening in Florida from happening in California. We are in new territory, and we cannot be afraid to act.”

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Corey Jackson

Corey Jackson

If signed by Newsom, the bill, which won legislative support on Thursday, would take effect immediately and create a new process for the public to complain directly to the state superintendent of public instruction if they feel students are being deprived of proper education materials. The state would provide the textbooks to the students and could deduct the cost of the textbooks from the district’s funding.

Although the bill has undergone a slew of amendments since it was introduced, the California School Boards Association remained opposed as of today. The bill’s intentions are laudable, said association spokesman Troy Flint, but the repercussions could be negative and long-lasting.

“These disgusting tactics are part of a national strategy by conservatives to literally retell history to not reflect the truth about people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ.”

Assemblymember Corey Jackson, Democrat from Moreno Valley

California already has a lengthy public process to adopt a new curriculum, he noted. In addition, the state, county offices of education and local school districts have complaint processes for the public to protest textbooks, policies or other facets of the education system. The public also has an opportunity to weigh in on textbooks when county offices of education conduct their annual reviews of instructional materials.

Instead, the bill would further incite tension between the state and school boards, which under California’s system of “local control” have a large degree of autonomy, he said.

“We understand the motivations behind the bill, and we agree on the importance of students having access to inclusive textbooks,” Flint said. “But we think there are less inflammatory ways to handle this.”

Flint also pointed out that the bill could potentially stop schools from banning books that some might feel are racist or homophobic. That has already happened in some California schools. In 2020, Burbank Unified in Los Angeles County banned “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and two other books after parents complained that the books are racist.

“The implications are significant… Proponents are under the impression that the people in charge now will forever remain so,” Flint said. “A good law is just in all situations, not only in reaction to a certain environment.”

Jonathan Alexander, an English professor at UC Irvine, praised the bill, saying that protecting students’ access to high-quality works of literature — especially pertaining to LGBTQ issues — is more important than ever, considering the current polarized political climate. Students of all backgrounds and identities can benefit from learning the history and experiences of other groups, hopefully leading to a more equitable and accepting society, he said.

“If anyone’s going to lead us out of our current apocalypse, it’s going to be young people who’ve learned from each other and can show us better paths forward,” Alexander said.

“We understand the motivations behind the bill, and we agree on the importance of students having access to inclusive textbooks. But we think there are less inflammatory ways to handle this.”

troy flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association

Book bans such as those in Florida can be damaging to young people’s mental health, especially LGBTQ youth who might be searching for positive stories featuring characters like themselves. The publishing industry is in a golden age of LGBTQ youth literature, he said, with a wide breadth of sensitive, well-written books available. Schools should be promoting those books, not banning them.

“California is sending a signal that we value inclusivity. We’re actively encouraging young people to think about what kind of life they want to craft for themselves, what the possibilities are for their future,” he said. “That’s in direct contradiction to what’s happening in other states.”

Alexander and Rogers both pointed out that the bill could have wide-ranging benefits.

“It’s important that young people grapple with the full history of our country, even if it can be uncomfortable,” Rogers said, “so as adults, they’re in position to make it a more just place.”

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