Amidst national scrutiny of the dozens of books the district rejected last year in response to Florida’s new book laws, Duval County Public Schools clarified Tuesday which books it returned to its distributor because they weren’t part of the district’s intended order — and which books it returned over content.
What led the district to reject nearly 50 titles — including 34 titles explicitly over content — last year became a flashpoint during Congressional debate on a federal “Parents’ Bill of Rights” last week. The proposal mirrors laws Florida passed last year, prompting House Democrats to point to Duval County’s review of the Essential Voices classroom library collection as a cautionary tale of what could happen elsewhere in the country under the bill.
The books rejected over content include: The Berenstain Bears and the Big Question by Jan and Stan Berenstain about God and religion; Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee in the U.S.; and Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh, a children’s book about the fight to end segregation in California schools seven years before Brown v. Board of Education – the Supreme Court decision that found school segregation unconstitutional.
Up until this week, the district had not specified which books it rejected because they were substitute titles, and which books it rejected because, “upon review, we determined they would not comply with new legislation or were not appropriate for elementary aged children,” according to the district.
The Essential Voices collection is a "diverse, inclusive" set of books with the goal that "students will see themselves in what they read, developing an understanding and appreciation of themselves as well as others around them," according to the distributor, Perfection Learning.
Duval Schools ordered the collection in 2021 but pulled it for review upon receipt as the state Legislature was hashing out a bill making it easier for parents to contest books — as well as bills limiting instruction on sexual orientation, gender identity and race and racism. The district says the review was also because 14 titles were substitute titles to their original order (as the distributor's ordering form states can occur).
“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,” Superintendent Diana Greene told the School Board in February. “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.’”
Books that the district now says it rejected over substitution — regardless of content, according to the district — include Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop by Alice Faye Duncan, about Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1968 sanitation strike; The Life of Rosa Parks, by Kathleen Connors, about the civil rights leader; and Dim Sum for Everyone! by Grace Lin, about a Chinese American family enjoying a dim sum meal.
Nearly all the rejected titles, including the substitute titles, underwent a review process last spring in which staffers read the books and rated them according to a district rubric, review logs obtained by Jacksonville Today show.
The district says this wasn't a formal review against state laws because the new standards didn't exist at the time. Instead, the district says it created documents "sorting which books we receive and logging notes," before deciding to send all substitute titles back.
UPDATE: This story was updated March 31 with a response from Duval Schools about the review process.