Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, sponsored legislation to regulate books available through school libraries. (2019 Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Democrats in the Senate Education and Health Committee narrowly voted down a bill aimed at controversial instructional materials in public schools — a political flashpoint that’s roiled local school boards and became a key issue in the Virginia governor’s race.
The legislation, which died Thursday in an 8-7 party-line vote, isn’t the only bill this session directed at addressing complaints about the content of books available through school libraries and assigned in classes. But the vote was a likely bellwether for the fate of similar legislation in the Democrat-controlled committee, whose members have pledged to block many Republican-backed measures on issues including teaching what Gov. Glenn Youngkin has called “divisive” concepts in schools.
Sponsored by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, the legislation would have required local school boards to develop policies on the selection and evaluation of all “printed and audiovisual materials” available in school libraries and required parental permission before any student could check out a book involving sexual content. The bill also would have required local school boards to develop policies for handling “controversial instructional material.”
“I’m not trying to ban anything or burn anything — all I want to say is, let’s let the parents say it’s okay for their child to see this,” said DeSteph, who narrowed the scope of the bill in response to concerns from multiple committee members. As originally drafted, the legislation would have required parental involvement and “a reasonable opportunity for public comment” before school libraries added any new texts.
The initial bill would have also required school libraries to remove books that could be considered “grooming materials,” a defined term in Virginia code related to depictions of children engaged in sexual acts in the context of child pornography or soliciting minors for sex. Libraries, museums and works of art are exempt from the code section, but DeSteph — who began hearings for the bill by distributing excerpts from books he considered objectionable — used the term to describe texts such as “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and the graphic novel “Gender Queer,” which explores nonbinary gender identity and includes two depictions of LGBTQ sexual experiences.
Both books have been focal points in contentious debates across Virginia over the materials available in school libraries or assigned in classrooms. This fall, Fairfax County pulled “Gender Queer” and the novel “Lawn Boy” from school library shelves after complaints from some parents, only to reinstate them weeks later. Parents in Virginia Beach protested the same books, as well as “The Bluest Eye” and “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines.
Spotsylvania County made national headlines after banning all sexually explicit books from school libraries, only to reverse the decision a week later. And Youngkin made controversial texts a core issue in the final days of his campaign, running a political advertisement featuring a Fairfax County mother who petitioned the district to ban Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” — assigned in her son’s high school Advanced Placement course.
Like Youngkin, DeSteph and other supporters framed the bill as an important protection of parental rights. “This last election showed us that parents want to have more control about what is happening in their schools,” said Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, in a Thursday committee meeting. “We all watched that election and we all know why the governor is sitting in that mansion right now.”
Opponents of the legislation, though — including Democratic committee members, the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the Virginia School Boards Association and the Virginia Association of School Librarians — raised a range of logistical and ideological concerns with the bill over two contentious hearings.
Before the legislation was amended, school librarians worried that the parental involvement and public comment period provisions — mandated in the original draft but with no clear guidance on how either should be structured — would delay the tight timeline for adding new books to libraries over the summer. Even without those requirements, many said the bill was redundant given that school librarians are trained to vet and approve texts, and that parents can already ask their local school boards to review any books they find controversial.
“We follow best practice by reviewing books in their entirety, not by taking passages out of context and only then deciding their appropriateness,” said Kelly Passek, a middle school librarian in Blacksburg who was named the 2021 Virginia School Librarian of the Year, in a hearing last week. “And we’re evaluated yearly on our adherence to these guidelines.”
“For this legislation to suggest that our library professionals and public school libraries would provide students with illegal and immoral materials is at its least wrong and at its worst disgusting,” she added.
In the same hearing, Democratic committee members also questioned DeSteph’s description of many books as pornographic and unnecessary. When asked by Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, whether he had ever read “The Bluest Eye,” DeSteph responded that he didn’t understand the educational value of the book.
“That book and the entire list of books I provided — I’ve glanced through them, I’ve read excerpts from them or I’ve read the entire book,” he said. “And I truly don’t understand the educational value of any of them, with the exception of ‘Lolita,’ which is an international literary work of art.”
Both Howell and Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, also objected to the central premise of the bill — that parents should have total oversight over the books their children chose to check out from school libraries. And Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, was skeptical that the legislation — which would have applied to all grade levels — would insulate children from explicit or controversial material in the age of smart phones.
“You think that we’d pass this and 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds — even 14-year-olds — have no way of finding this stuff anyway?” he said before voting down the bill on Thursday. “It’s just absurd.”
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