When Karen Smith took her oath as the new president of the Central Bucks County, Pa., school board, she opted to forgo the Bible her colleagues used—instead placing her hand on a stack of contested library books that had become a flashpoint in her reelection.
The move was a symbolic repudiation of the prior board’s priorities. It had made national headlines in recent years after a conservative majority passed a policy to review and restrict library books with “sexualized content.” Critics of the policy said it would lead to a practical ban on some titles, including those that appeared in Smith’s stack at the Dec. 4 meeting.
Smith and her four newly elected Democratic colleagues had campaigned on changing course, and successfully flipped the nine-member board’s ideological majority in November. Soon after, it began rolling back some of the prior board’s policies.
The picture of Smith’s oath-taking has since circulated widely on social media and appeared in national news stories about national elections, school boards, and book challenges—showing how the quintessentially local nature of school board governance has taken on outsized prominence, a trend that shows few signs of stopping.
“It does seem like we’ve seen some nationalization of education in recent years,” said Vladimir Kogan, a professor of political science at Ohio State University who studies state and local government. “But I don’t think that’s new. The issues have just changed with the times.”
Today’s book debates are much like debates over issues like teaching evolution from decades ago, he said, but they are more cleanly split along partisan lines.
For her part, Smith’s takeaway about the matter is simpler.
“The biggest thing that people can learn from us is that elections matter,” she told Education Week. “You need to be watching very carefully who’s running for elections in your community, at your local level, because we have more impact than any other politician.”
Board acts quickly on campaign promises
In districts elsewhere, which have faced similar debates in recent years, advocates on both sides of the issues have examined victories like Smith’s, looking for signs of what’s to come in a divisive time in local politics.
Like other communities, Central Bucks County saw a slate of conservative candidates elected in 2021 with support from conservative activist groups like Moms for Liberty, which gained momentum over frustration from COVID-era school closures and sought to challenge how schools address issues like race, gender, sexuality, and politics. Other organizations seeking to recruit and support progressive candidates, have since launched school board-focused strategies to challenge that influence.
Central Bucks County’s previous, conservative-dominated board had also banned Pride Flags, tried to limit teachers’ “advocacy speech,” and ultimately the district faced a federal civil rights investigation over the treatment of LGBTQ students.
Smith and her colleagues were elected following a spirited campaign in which candidates on both sides spent a combined total of $600,000, half of which came from a local venture capitalist, the husband of one of the losing conservative candidates, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The newly elected board majority quickly acted on its campaign promises in that first December meeting by:
- Reversing a policy that prohibited transgender girls from playing on girls’ sports teams.
- Ending a policy that prohibited employees from using “speech, conduct, or symbols to support or oppose a particular point of view or belief about partisan, political, or social policy issues or matters.” That policy sparked protests over the removal of Pride flags.
- Ending a policy that prohibited textbooks and classroom materials with “sexualized content.” Smith said that policy could be difficult to interpret and apply, even sparking concerns about materials for high school anatomy and physiology courses.
- Ending a policy that created a district-level “library supervisor” and process to challenge books.
Members also unanimously voted to direct an attorney to investigate a $700,000 severance package the previous board had quickly approved for the district’s previous superintendent, who had sided with conservative members on some issues and quickly resigned after the November election.
Choosing a stack of frequently banned books
Before the new board’s first meeting, Smith messaged a group chat about taking her oath for another term. Because she’s not particularly religious, a friend suggested she place her hand “on a stack of banned books.”
Smith quickly thought of titles that were particularly meaningful to her. One of the first books she added to the stack was Night, a memoir of the Holocaust by survivor Elie Wiesel. That book stirred a controversy in Central Bucks County last school year when a high school librarian was flagged for “advocacy activities” after he posted a quote from Wiesel’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech on a bulletin board.
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” that quote read. “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
A principal told the librarian to remove that quote, concerned it violated the policy, the Bucks County Herald reported. He was later allowed to replace it following public outcry.
“This is America,” Smith said about that incident. “We were founded on principles of freedom: the freedom to express ourselves, the freedom of ideas. Students have rights, and our community values that. They also respect the professionalism of our librarians.”
Other books in Smith’s stack had been flagged for removal under the now-suspended book review policy. They included The Bluest Eye, a story of childhood abuse by author Toni Morrison, and All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir by LGBTQ activist George M. Johnson. One of the books, Lily and Dunkin,seemed to have been flagged because it has a transgender character, not because it contains any graphic sexual language, Smith said.
Fox News and other conservative news outlets were quick to note one book in the stack, Flamer, a graphic novel that tells the story of a boy who is bullied at summer camp because of gay stereotypes, because it contains descriptions of sex and depictions of nudity.
Flamer was on the American Library Association’s list of most banned books in 2022. Smith said she became aware of the book when she attended a librarian conference and spoke to a non-binary Texas student who said reading it “saved their life” because it made them feel less alone.
“I was kind of stunned and speechless hearing them say that,” Smith said. “Those are very powerful words.”
Smith believes it’s important for students to recognize their own experiences in books. While Flamer may help students experiencing harassment for their sexuality, The Bluest Eye may help teens recognize and confront experiences with sexual assault.
It’s understandable that some parents may not want their children to read some materials for religious or other reasons, Smith said. When she is approached with such concerns, Smith said she assures constituents that the books in question are only available to older students and that parents can individually flag materials they don’t want their children to check out.
“I totally support parents,” Smith said. “If there are parents who have concerns about a book, then the mechanism exists for them to express that concern and to prevent their own child from reading that book. But they shouldn’t be allowed to prevent all kids from reading it.”
Education debates grow more partisan
The partisan tone on the Central Bucks school board has become more pronounced in recent years, said Smith, who is in her ninth year on the board and registered as a Republican when she was first elected.
There have been divisive arguments centered on education for decades, including clashes over prayer in schools and school choice, said Kogan. But those debates have fallen more distinctly along partisan lines in recent years, he said.
“It’s really Democrats versus Republicans fighting over critical race theory, fighting over library books,” Kogan said.
And those debates have been amplified by the rise of social media, he said. Which explains why school boards in different states have simultaneously discussed the removal of very similar lists of library books flagged by concerned interest groups.
Smith said her party allegiance began to fray when she differed with conservative colleagues about issues like masking and the district’s COVID-19 response. When national coverage of issues like race and gender trickled into local politics, she decided to switch parties.
She grew frustrated when community members approached her with cable news stories about critical race theory, concerned that local schools were “telling white kids it’s not OK to be white.”
“I’m literally standing here in front of these people at the polls and saying, ‘That’s not true,’” Smith said. “You know I’m your neighbor. I’m your local representative. I’m telling you that doesn’t happen here, and you’re not believing me.”
A year before the presidential election, political commentators have watched high-profile school board races for signs of how messages about parents’ rights, classroom content, and the direction of education might play up-ticket in 2024. While former President Donald Trump has championed teaching “American exceptionalism,” President Joe Biden has focused on issues like student mental health and civil rights.
Those debates played out on a smaller scale in districts like Central Bucks County and others that have attracted national attention from political candidates.
School boards that have dealt with sharp divisions in recent years may struggle to put the toothpaste back in the tube because there will always be new debates emerging, Kogan said. But “doubling down” on academic improvement following the pandemic may be one way to refocus.
“Everybody agrees that students should be able to read, and everybody agrees that students should be able to do math,” he said. “There are different ideas about how to teach that, but those are consensus areas.”