Professional Development

New Training Tells Florida School Librarians Which Books Are Off-Limits

By Eesha Pendharkar — January 18, 2023 6 min read
A student browses through books in the Presidio Middle School library in San Francisco, Calif. on Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019.
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School librarians in Florida will have to undergo training on choosing, removing, and curating books for school and classroom libraries to comply with a state law passed last year.

They are prohibited from using any instructional materials that include critical race theory, culturally responsive teaching, social-emotional learning, social justice, “and any other unsolicited theories that may lead to student indoctrination are prohibited,” according to the training.

They also have to seek input from parents before buying books and have to defend their choices in case of objections.

Librarians and education experts told Education Week that the training is going to contribute to self-censorship on the part of librarians, because they’re fearful of violating the rules. That, in turn, could lead to students losing access to diverse perspectives, especially historically marginalized students who find themselves represented by many of the banned books and instructional materials.

Combined with the increasing number of book challenges and bans across the country, the law imposes an additional barrier for students having access to diverse books.

“It’s just very frustrating that it’s turning into a battleground,” said Kathleen Daniels, a school librarian and the president of the Florida Association of Media in Education, or FAME. “And ultimately, the ones that lose are the kids, and it’s the most vulnerable kids.”

The state law required the training be made available earlier this month and was passed amid the slew of legislation in Florida aimed at restricting what students read and learn about, particularly topics considered controversial, such as race and racism or LGBTQ issues.

Republican lawmakers say that these laws are meant for parents to regain control of their children’s education. Florida enacted other laws with this objective, including the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” which bans lessons on divisive concepts; the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans education about sexual orientation or gender identity for students in K-3, and mandates that lessons on those topics be developmentally appropriate for older students; and now the librarian-training law.

The bill was originally introduced as curriculum-transparency legislation. “In Florida, our parents have every right to be involved in their child’s education. We are not going to let politicians deny parents the right to know what is being taught in our schools. I’m proud to sign this legislation that ensures curriculum transparency,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, in a statement when he signed the bill.

The Florida education department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The training was developed by the education department along with a group of stakeholders that included some members of FAME as well as members of the right-wing parent group Moms for Liberty, Daniels said.

“I think the training is 95% where it needs to be and we believe that it is going to be very effective for the state and children in Florida,” said Jennifer Pippin, chair of the Indian River County chapter of Moms for Liberty.

“It will hold the media center specialists in the state accountable for their roles and responsibilities to follow the laws and statutes that protect children.”

But the proposed version of the training published by the department is not based on best practices, and it is not what the media specialists from FAME agreed upon during the meetings where the group was developing the training, she said.

What the training might look like

The hour long presentation uploaded by the Florida education department is a proposed version of the training, which is currently open to public comment. It covers considerations for media specialists — often the term for school librarians in Florida — in selecting library and instructional materials.

The presentation, combined with a voice over, lists general principles for media specialists to consider while choosing new books, curating a collection for a classroom or library, and removing books. They include avoiding materials considered to be pornography and choosing age-appropriate books that reflect the “racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and cultural diversity of students.”

But the training also requires media specialists to avoid material that says people are inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive; that anyone bears responsibility for past actions of their race or sex; and that anyone should feel “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” for actions committed in the past by members of the same race or sex.

These are the same principles passed in 17 states, including Florida, that have resulted in a chilling effect on lessons about race and racism. Although these concepts are vague, a complaint against a teacher or a district for violating these laws can come with severe consequences, such as districts getting their accreditation docked.

In the proposed version of the training, reviewers of instructional materials are also directed to avoid materials that mention critical race theory, as well as culturally responsive teaching and social justice, because critics of CRT say they relate to that concept. Materials about social-emotional learning are also prohibited, because they are “extraneous and unsolicited strategies outside the scope of subject-area standards,” according to the training.

Robert Simmons, a scholar of anti-racist subject guides at American University’s School of Education, says that curriculum has always been a topic of debate, but that “now it’s much more in the public space that people are talking about it.”

“Much of this is that, at least as I understand it, they don’t want kids to learn about race and racism and violence,” Simmons said. “[Banning books] is going to have a negative effect on how our kids interact with each other, how they interact with the broader society.”

Parental feedback is crucial, according to proposed training

The proposed training emphasizes that “parental feedback is important and parents should be included in all aspects of choosing materials.”

All meetings held to select instructional materials have to be open to the public, including parents, students, and community members. Parents also have to be consulted before purchasing new library media materials, the training says.

“We are for parents having the right to help their child navigate their education the way that they want. They can dictate what their child can or cannot read based on their preferences, beliefs, and views,” Daniels, the FAME president, said. “But what they cannot do is dictate somebody else’s kid.”

Librarians should also be prepared to defend the educational value of the instructional material they choose in case there are any objections, the training says.

“The responsibility of the content of instructional materials lies with those that choose the materials,” according to the training. “Parents that are challenging or objecting to materials should not have to prove that those materials are objectionable.”

Every year, starting this July, superintendents are required to report to the state education department whether all librarians have undergone the training. Districts are also required to adopt procedures to permit a parent or resident to object to the adoption or use of any instructional material.


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