Banned Books Week is over, but the issue itself is not only far from settled in Virginia – it’s a key topic in some of this fall’s school board elections. And some candidates for those local school boards are concerned that parents and students’ rights are being overlooked by groups pushing book bans that censor what they read.
Almost 400 books have been subject to ban efforts this year in Virginia, according to the American Library Association – about double the number book bans attempted last year, which itself was twice as many as had been challenged in 2021.
Some of these efforts have been higher-profile than others. Earlier this year in Virginia, the school board in Madison County banned 21 books, using a list of novels that Focus on the Family, a national conservative organization, deemed unacceptable. Just last month, a public library in Warren County narrowly avoided a forced shutdown amid a battle over which books were deemed acceptable and who had the power to make those decisions.
Against the backdrop of this book banning bonanza are this fall’s school board elections. Five counties across northern Virginia and the Richmond suburbs will elect school board members on Nov. 7, and Dogwood spoke with some of the candidates about their views on book bans and how they could be empowered to push back against them amid this growing effort.
Melanie Meren is running for reelection to the Fairfax County School Board. As a member of the board of Virginia’s largest school system, she’s playing close attention to book ban debates across the state.
“I have combed [Fairfax County Public School] policy and regulation to be sure it is clear in process for challenging materials and air tight in its protection of the school division’s commitment to recognizing all of our students’ experiences in our materials,” Meren said.
“I have pledged my allegiance to our expert school librarians who curate collections that help developing children reach their potential by feeling safe and seen. I have informed parents about their rights to review curriculum, books, and materials, and I listen to parents and caregivers who find certain content inappropriate.”
Meren is deeply troubled by rising efforts to ban books more broadly.
“We had decided as a society decades ago not to entertain the notion of book banning. It is astonishing that in 2023, some individuals seek to impose their opinions on entire school divisions about what all students should or should not have access to,” she told Dogwood. “Their thinking is arcane and in opposition to preparing students for a complex world filled with diverse people. We don’t prepare children for their adult future if we ban books.
Padreus Pratter is a candidate for Prince William County school board, and as the son of a retired public school teacher with two young children himself, these book ban efforts hit very close to home.
Pratter sees conversations around banning books as not only troubling, but also a distraction from schools’ work to support fundamental reading and educational success.
“It’s time we take the politics out of reading,” he told Dogwood. “Reading is a foundational skill, critical to future learning and to exercising our democratic freedoms. Books expose students to diverse perspectives and experiences, enabling them to develop critical thinking skills and independent thought.”
Pratter is also concerned about taking power away from parents to steer their children’s decisions about what to read and giving it to “single-issue interest groups” to make reading decisions for kids who aren’t their own.
“We can trust individuals to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. Parents have always had the right to guide their children’s reading and education.”
Pratter further understands that politics are a driving force behind the broad effort to ban books and vows to oppose such efforts in Prince William County schools and instead direct the board’s work toward helping students themselves.
“It is unacceptable to remove books from schools or public libraries based on partisan or political reasons, and it’s a slippery slope to government censorship and the erosion of the First Amendment,” he said. “I will reject any efforts to ban books and allow individuals and parents to make the decision about what they can read and believe and instead will focus the conversation on what the school board and district is doing to ensure all students are reading at grade level.”
Henrico County teacher and school board candidate Madison Irving echoed many of Pratter’s sentiments.
The debate over banning books “fundamentally comes down to the fact that you shouldn’t control what other kids have access to,” Irving told Dogwood.
“I want myself as a parent to be able to have conversations with [my daughter] about these things,” he continued. “Being able to have these conversations is important.”
Irving also said that book bans are very much an issue in his race.
“It’s the biggest issue I hear about when I’m canvassing and campaigning,” he said. “Most people just want kids to be able to read and have academic freedom.”
Further, Irving says, kids’ reading skills should be the focus of book-oriented discussions, not removing reading materials from schools and libraries.
“Students already do not read enough – whatever we can do to actually encourage kids to read is beneficial.”
Irving also noted that book ban efforts are a distraction from what school board members should actually seek to achieve.
“I want to make the school board very boring – school buses running on time, kids being fed properly, resolving staffing shortages, and helping students achieve their full potential.”
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