Why do secret committees decide which books are banned from Texas schools?

For evidence of the damage caused by the moral panic over school library books, contact Keller ISD for Appendix A.

When a parent in this school district challenges a book in a classroom or school library, the district convenes a committee of staff, parents, and other community members to review the book. Each book challenge gives rise to a separate selection. The decisions of the committees are final, but they can be appealed to the school board.

In other words, it’s not just recommendations. These ad hoc committees have the power to decide whether a book stays or disappears, and at least in Keller ISD, they can make their decisions in secret. The district is blocking the release of the names of those serving on the committees, citing fears of hostility and even criminal investigation. Books diving into race and sexuality have garnered attention from state officials, with Governor Greg Abbott threatening to prosecute people responsible for “pornographic material” in public schools.

We believe that Keller ISD is wrong in concealing information about its committees. Yet the district’s concerns are a sad reflection of the disgusting policies that are poisoning schools’ efforts in good faith to find consensus on controversial issues.

Keller ISD is not alone in having these “reconsideration committees.” A review of educational resource policies in other North Texas school districts, including Dallas, shows that they allow similar committees to deal with formal book complaints from parents. A school district has the right to include parents and community members who can provide feedback on what is age appropriate. But it is a mistake to give a group of volunteers the consequential power to decide which books should be removed from public school libraries while protecting them from basic government transparency.

In a letter challenging our colleague Talia Richman’s request for the names of people participating in book challenge committees, a lawyer for Keller ISD argued that committee members could reasonably fear scrutiny, posts on social media and external forces such as pressure from the governor.

“The public comments at school board meetings show a level of passion around this topic that is at times overwhelming,” reads the letter, noting that people will be discouraged from volunteering for book challenge committees due to potential harassment and retaliation.

The bullying of school leaders and parents is the depressing result of the culture war being waged over how we talk about race and sex in the classroom. We are disappointed that our governor and other politicians have created hysteria instead of calming the mood so that schools and their communities can have respectful conversations about how to deal with difficult issues.

But the fact that book challenge committees deal with controversial issues, that emotions run high, and that they are of a preliminary nature should not exempt their watch plans from becoming public under state open government laws. Other voluntary groups debating controversial issues for local governments, such as zone commissions, make their decisions in the eyes of the public.

Government power and public control go hand in hand. If districts are not willing to disclose who serves on their book challenge committee, then they should find another path to parental involvement that does not leave the final decisions in the hands of anonymous volunteers.

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