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How Duval Schools’ book debate wound up on the floor of Congress

Published on March 26, 2023 at 1:45 pm

U.S. House members voted 213-208 on Friday to pass a federal “Parents Bill of Rights,” after multiple Democratic lawmakers highlighted Duval County as an example of the “chilling effect” of schoolbook laws.

The bill’s supporters — only Republicans in the House — say it gives parents more say in their children’s education. “This bill aims to bring more transparency and accountability to education,” the sponsor, Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., said Thursday.

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The proposed law incorporates elements of two laws Florida passed last year. The first (HB 1467) makes it easier for parents to contest schoolbooks and prompted a districtwide review of books in Duval Schools. The federal version would require schools nationwide to maintain a list of all library books and allow parents to inspect any book in the school.

During debate about that part of the bill, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., entered a Jacksonville Today article from December into the Congressional Record. The story reported that Duval County Public Schools last fall returned dozens of books — described by the distributor as a diverse, inclusive library collection.

“The concern that many of us have here is that this would have a chilling effect on the freedom of kids all across the country to read all kinds of books,” McGovern told his colleagues. “School districts might not want to end up dealing with any kind of controversy because of a small number of people that might raise objections.”

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In response to the national attention this week, Duval Schools said a book Democrats zeroed in on — “The Life of Rosa Parks” — was returned because it was a substitute title in an order, not because of content. However, the district has acknowledged that it had to fight with the distributor to take back the book, along with at least 33 additional books the district did reject over content.

The federal “Parents Bill of Rights” also includes language similar to Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” law (HB 1557), which requires school districts to notify parents about changes in their child’s care — a law critics dubbed “Don’t Say Gay.” In response to Florida’s law, Duval Schools slashed its long-standing LGBTQ+ Support Guide and created a new parental notification policy.

Florida’s version requires schools to notify parents about changes in a student’s “mental, emotional or physical health or well-being,” and was widely interpreted by Florida schools to apply to students who come out as transgender at school. The federal version explicitly spells out the law applying to changing gender pronouns, raising fears among critics that students could be “outed” to parents without their consent.

Florida’s law allows schools to withhold some information if it would “result in abuse, abandonment, or neglect.” The federal “Parents Bill of Rights” does not have that provision.

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How Duval became a national example

As House members debated the “Parents Bill of Rights” this week, Duval County became a central figure in Democrats’ contention that state versions of the bill have had a chilling effect on schools.

During a Rules Committee hearing on the bill, McGovern read from “The Life of Rosa Parks,stating, “It was pulled from second grade classrooms and the Duval County Public School District in Florida. So let’s just see what is so objectionable.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y. later held up the book on the House floor, saying, “Look at these books that have already been banned due to Republican measures. This is apparently too woke by the Republican Party.”

The allegation stemmed from the book’s inclusion in a set of 47 books Duval Schools returned to its distributor after a monthslong review process last year. The district also returned a book about Martin Luther King Jr. intended for fourth graders; a first grade Berenstain Bears book about God; and numerous titles including LGBTQ+ characters and families.

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, challenged the allegation that “The Life of Rosa Parks” was banned in Duval County.

“Books about Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron from the Essential Voices collection are among approximately 10,000 books that have been reviewed and approved through the new state-required book review process,” Roy said to the House. “The fact is, there was a purchase of 1,300 books from Perfection Learning. Current efforts to review all media center and classroom library books, which is now required under state law, was completed. Those books were not banned.”

The Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron books were placed on shelves in February after national outcry and admonishment from Florida’s Department of Education for the length of review for the books. Twenty-six additional books, held for pending review in December, also have been approved for school shelves.

This was not the case for “The Life of Rosa Parks,” which was among 47 titles that were reviewed, rejected and returned to the district’s distributor, according to records obtained by Jacksonville Today.

Duval Schools’ response

The debate about whether this book was banned in Duval Schools went viral on Twitter, prompting Duval Schools to respond that it never purchased “The Life of Rosa Parks.” Invoice records and book review logs show Duval Schools did purchase the book — albeit unintentionally, according to the district.

In response to a Jacksonville Today inquiry Friday, Duval Schools wrote in an email: “The book that was the subject of the statement was returned to the publisher because we did not order it. It was among a group of substitute titles received in place of books that we did order. We sent all the substitute titles we received back to the publisher.”

According to a Perfection Learning Essential Voices ordering form, districts should be aware that orders may include substitutes. “Due to availability of titles, substitutions may be made,” the form states.

During a School Board workshop in February, superintendent Diana Greene said the district had to fight with the distributor, Perfection Learning, to take those books back.

“We made a decision that we’re sending all substitute titles back, doesn’t matter whether they, whether we would have accepted them or not accepted them,” Greene said. “We had to argue back and forth with the company because they didn’t want to take them back, and we said, yes, you will take them back.”

Review logs show two reviewers spent a total of four minutes reading and rating “The Life of Rosa Parks” using a text selection rubric last year. Both reviewers rated the book highly. The district later returned this book, now explaining that it was because it was one of 14 substitute titles.

The district says this wasn’t a formal review against new state standards because they didn’t exist at the time. Instead, the district says it created documents “sorting which books we receive and logging notes.

In January, Jacksonville Today asked about which books were sent back to Perfection Learning because of substitution, and Duval Schools stated, “At this stage we do not have any further information regarding the titles that are part of the various lists.”

An additional 33 titles were sent back to the distributor because, as the district states, it was “determined they would not comply with new legislation or were not appropriate for elementary aged children.” Among those books were numerous books about LGBTQ+ characters, one of which a top district review supervisor called “contrary to the design of humanity” and “morally damning.” She resigned shortly after those comments were made public.

An ongoing review

The parsing of the word “book ban” is not new to Florida or Duval County Schools. During a news conference this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis said recent coverage of the district’s attempts to comply with the new Florida law amount to a “book ban hoax,” and accused Duval County of “intentionally trying to create friction to act like something was wrong in the state of Florida.”

DeSantis then went on to hold up four books with sexual content to exemplify the need for Florida’s new law. None of those books have been found in Duval Schools, however, according to the governor’s list of districts with the books and Duval Schools’ online catalog.

Duval Schools says its intensive, ongoing review of books — during which about 10,000 books are currently available to students — is necessary to comply with state law and to “ensure teachers and school leaders do not have to worry about jeopardizing their career because a book may be construed to be in violation of Florida law.”

Teachers could be charged with felonies for content deemed pornographic under a long-standing anti-pornography law and risk penalties to their teaching licenses for books that violate other Florida laws limiting instruction on sexual orientation, gender identity, and race and racism.

During a rally Tuesday in Jacksonville, former Duval County School Board member Elizabeth Andersen said recent legislation has made schools fearful. “This is the climate and the culture that was created,” Andersen said. “The fearmongering that we have heard now for a year is what has brought us to this point.”

Neighboring St. Johns County has instructed teachers to pull more than 90 books from school shelves, during a review in response to Florida’s new laws. The books — many of which discuss racism or feature LGBTQ+ characters — are being reviewed because of parent objections and will be returned to shelves, circulated with restrictions or removed after review.

As for the future national ‘Parent’s Bill of Rights,’ no House Democrats supported the bill in Friday’s House vote, making it unlikely to succeed in the Democratic-led Senate.

UPDATE: This story was updated March 30 with a response from Duval Schools about review logs.


author image Reporter, Jacksonville Today Claire has been a reporter in Jacksonville since August of 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. Reach Claire with tips, ideas or comments at (904) 250-0926, claire@jaxtoday.org and on Twitter at @ClaireHeddles.
author image Reporter, Jacksonville Today Claire has been a reporter in Jacksonville since August of 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. Reach Claire with tips, ideas or comments at (904) 250-0926, claire@jaxtoday.org and on Twitter at @ClaireHeddles.

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