Florida is prompting schools to examine books with a statewide lens

Under new state rules, deciding whether books stay or go should no longer focus just on what the locals want.
In this image from a Pinellas County Schools livestream, chief academic officer Dan Evans discusses why the Toni Morrison novel "The Bluest Eye" was removed from high schools during a school board meeting on Jan. 24, 2023. Evans says the district's process for reviewing books under new state laws is evolving.
In this image from a Pinellas County Schools livestream, chief academic officer Dan Evans discusses why the Toni Morrison novel "The Bluest Eye" was removed from high schools during a school board meeting on Jan. 24, 2023. Evans says the district's process for reviewing books under new state laws is evolving. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published July 18

Florida’s public education system relies heavily on the concept of “local control,” where school districts make many key decisions based on their unique needs, tastes and preferences.

But as the debate intensifies over the types of books that deserve space on school shelves, the balance of power increasingly is shifting away from community standards in favor of state-imposed norms.

Witness the Pinellas County school district.

Pinellas recently evaluated 87 books, all selected by local educators for review before placing them in schools. Every book was approved for use, and officials have said they plan another round in the fall.

This time, they said, the list of books to be considered wouldn’t come solely from the Pinellas community.

They said the next round will focus on materials removed or discontinued after challenges in other Florida counties. Districts were required to submit those lists by June 30 to the Department of Education, which is to publish the compiled information by the end of August.

It’s intended to be one of many guides for districts to look at while purchasing books. But it’s starting to look like it might become one of the top ones.

“The state has asked districts to consider books that other districts have reviewed,” Pinellas chief academic officer Dan Evans said. “We are trying to create a proactive and evolving process.”

The presence of the list has increased the chances that Florida school districts will expand the practice of reviewing — and possibly removing — books from classrooms without a formal challenge. And that has raised the hackles of groups such as Florida Freedom to Read Project and PEN America.

They have suggested that such action, spurred by pressure from Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican lawmakers, could make it look as if book censorship is not prevalent in Florida schools even as titles disappear. Decisions to pull books off of shelves without a formal challenge are not counted on the state list that’s coming out, they said, meaning many materials might be gone without any public accounting.

It’s happening at the same time new state law comes into effect restricting books that include “sexual conduct” from grades for which it is “unsuitable.”

“We still don’t have direction ... about what does that mean,” said Ginger Brengle, a member of the Pinellas review team, noting that the lack of details complicates the review process.

DeSantis and his administration have insisted that they do not ban books. At the same time, they have called on schools to remove materials that have sexual content, making it easier to challenge such books and setting a strict time frame for pulling them off shelves until a review can take place.

The situation has anti-censorship groups concerned that students might see their school access limited to all types of books, including those objected to halfway across the state in a community nothing like their own.

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“I’m a firm believer in local control. I want the decision left up to our community,” said Raegan Miller, a Pinellas parent and co-director of Florida Freedom to Read. “I hope they are able to evaluate things fairly and keep as many books on the shelves as possible and not waste district funds on this.”

In their efforts to have materials reconsidered, lawmakers made clear their intent to have local input on decisions.

The law states that districts must create a process for parents and community residents to review and question collections.

The training document provided to media specialists, who are charged with curating selections, says it’s important to look at several factors when picking books, “including the school or district demographics, the school or district community, the needs of the population and the ways in which transparency is offered to the community regarding the current collection and selection of new materials.”

It also says that districts must create policies and practices to ensure materials harmful to minors are not present. That includes getting “stakeholder input, including parents,” in addition to consulting “reputable, professionally recognized reviewing periodicals.”

Past proposals to allow any person to object to books in a district, regardless of where they live, did not make it through the Legislature. But a law allowing parents to appeal to the state for reconsideration of a local decision did pass, and it’s being written into rules now.

Evans, the Pinellas chief academic officer, said the district wants to respect the state laws. He reiterated the administration’s position that it can review any materials as part of regular business, regardless of formal complaints.

Other districts, including most recently Leon County, have taken a similar stance. Leon superintendent Rocky Hanna removed five titles from schools at the suggestion of the Moms for Liberty group, and his staff have said many books previously used in courses could be reconsidered under the new law.

The Orange County school district also put holds on dozens of classic and popular novels over concerns about the “sexual conduct” law.

Not all school systems are taking the same approach, though.

Pasco County director of leading and learning Lea Mitchell said her team is going through library collections to weed out materials that have become dated, unused or worn. It hasn’t been done much over the past decade, since the district cut all school media specialist positions.

Pasco also spent $3 million to replace elementary classroom libraries with choices by a district-level media specialist, as a way to cope with the new laws on book selection. Teachers can ask the media specialist to approve other books.

But Mitchell said she had no intention of convening the district book review committee to take up titles that haven’t received a formal local challenge. Pasco School Board members haven’t had many conversations about this issue, and members said they have received almost no correspondence complaining about books.

The Pinellas board, meanwhile, continues to grapple with book challenges. It plans to discuss a second round of revisions to its policies in the past seven months when it convenes for a workshop Tuesday.

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