Tennessee textbook commission recruits inaugural team to handle potential challenges to school library book selections

Tennessee’s volunteer textbook commission is preparing to address new issues with school library books following an expanded definition of prohibited materials by state lawmakers.

The commission, granted increased appellate powers by the Republican-led legislature two years ago, is awaiting its first case for review, but changes are anticipated. With a staff now in place, led by Lee Houston, a retired school librarian from Crossville, the commission is gearing up for an increase in workload.

Lee Houston, an experienced educator and librarian with over 30 years of experience, took over as the executive director in March. The panel also brought on an administrative assistant in May and is in search of a full-time attorney.

In response to the potential surge in book challenges and appeals in a state known for banning books, Gov. Bill Lee and the legislature allocated $500,000 for staffing and an additional $55,000 for operational expenses to help manage the commission’s expanded responsibilities.

Linda Cash, the commission’s chairperson and superintendent of Bradley County Schools, emphasized the importance of dedicated support as book complaints move through local school boards.

“We expect to start seeing some of those trickle up to us,” Cash stated.

“I think everybody on the commission will take this very seriously and understands the weight and magnitude of any decision,” she added.

Books that some parents find objectionable could be removed statewide

Following a national backlash to the racial-justice movement of 2020, Tennessee has been at the forefront of enacting laws to restrict classroom discussions and review student-accessible books.

Initially targeting themes related to race and systemic racism, these laws have expanded to censor content on sexual violence, LGBTQ+ topics, and transgender identities.

According to the American Library Association, 350 titles were challenged in 2023 across school and public libraries in Tennessee.

While specific locations were not disclosed, reports indicate that districts in various counties and cities have been hot spots for book challenges.

Anticipating a rise in book challenges, recent revisions to Tennessee’s laws are expected to lead to more scrutiny of school library materials.

The laws mandate schools to assess library collection age appropriateness periodically, with the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission gaining authority to rule on appeals and potentially ban books statewide.

Furthermore, a new provision allows complainants to escalate book challenges to the state commission if not addressed by the school board within 60 days.

The revised laws also define criteria for material suitability in K-12 collections, affecting works previously considered appropriate based on student age and educational relevance.

Advocates argue they are safeguarding students from inappropriate content, while critics raise concerns over potential censorship and violation of free speech.

The broadened definition poses risks to various literary works, potentially resulting in bans for content spanning from nudity to portrayals of violence.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone from the American Library Association highlighted the impact on educational materials, particularly for students preparing for advanced studies.

Former librarian will lead commission’s work

The state textbook commission, comprising 11 appointed volunteer members, plays a crucial role in recommending textbooks and instructional materials for approval by the State Board of Education, aligning with Tennessee’s academic standards.

With ongoing textbook adoption processes and considerations, the commission has faced challenges and deadlines, highlighting the need for additional staff support.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons criticized the allocation of funds for staffing, viewing it as unnecessary bureaucracy that undermines democracy by restricting access to books in public schools.

Notably, Lee Houston, the commission’s executive director and former school librarian, emphasized the importance of law compliance and upholding the commission’s responsibilities.

In an interview, Houston expressed focus on the textbook adoption process, emphasizing adherence to legal frameworks despite the lack of current book appeals.

School librarians feel under attack

The recent revisions to Tennessee’s school library laws have sparked concerns among school librarians, portraying the legislative changes as censorship and government interference in educational materials.

Lindsey Kimery, a leader with the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, voiced apprehension over the impact on libraries and the profession, particularly in rural areas without adequate legal guidance.

She raised questions on due process for challenged books and highlighted the fear-driven climate affecting librarians, who face dilemmas regarding book removal or potential challenges from interest groups.

As librarians navigate the evolving landscape, concerns linger over how districts will handle book complaints and potential censorship, creating uncertainty and challenges for educators.

Despite the evolving situation, Kimery emphasized the need for informed decisions and a balanced approach to uphold educational values and intellectual freedom.

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