AUSTIN, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath released a letter addressed to Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Monday, outlining what he described as a newly constructed model local school board policy aiming to address obscene content in Texas public school libraries.

The model policy comes as the latest update to recent efforts by Texas state officials to, as said by Abbott in a November 2021 letter to the TEA, “ensure no child is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content in a Texas public school.”

According to Morath’s announcement, the model policy can serve as a guide to school boards regarding policies for their school district libraries. The model was intended to “establish strong procedures related to the selection, review and transparency of library materials that emphasize the rights of Texas parents.”

How did we get here?

Abbott’s letter, to which Morath responded with the announcement of the model policy, from November 2021 directed the TEA to investigate criminal activity in public schools involving the availability of “pornographic material that serves no educational purpose.” Abbott also directed the TEA to report any instance of pornography being provided to children for prosecution, despite the fact educators are already mandated by law to report harm to children, and the agency having multiple guidebooks about the ways it does.

That letter had shortly followed another from Abbott to the TEA, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC), and the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) with the direction that those agencies develop statewide standards “to ensure no child is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content in a Texas public school.” The Governor’s Office said that this came after the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) ‘abdicated the responsibility of school boards’ to protect students in that manner.

The abdication the governor referred to followed his letter from the governor to the TASB at the start of November 2021, and the launch of an inquiry by Representative Matt Krause that asked some school districts – including Amarillo ISD – to turn in an audit by Nov. 12, 2021, regarding whether or not certain books were available in their libraries.

The list outlined by Rep. Krause’s audit included a vast number of books on civil rights with respect to racial equality, feminism, and LGBTQ+ rights, as well as mental and physical health-focused books that include sexual education.

While there was little fanfare about the results of Krause’s audit – including no substantial feedback from Amarillo ISD – and the extent of “inappropriate” materials available in public schools, Abbott used two Texas school districts removing books from libraries or classrooms in 2021 due to what was described as “pornographic” content as evidence for his argument that the TEA and other agencies were failing to protect students; Keller Independent School District removed Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: a Memoir” from a school library, and Leander Independent School District removed Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House” from classrooms.

Both of the books are award-winning memoirs by LGBTQ+ creators. Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” focused on the author’s journey of self-identity and won both an ALA Alex Award as well as a Stonewall Award in 2020; Machado’s “In the Dream House”, which detailed the author’s experience with an abusive relationship, received the 2020 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ+ Nonfiction as well as the 2021 Folio Prize.

“As you noted in your letter, there have been several instances recently of inappropriate materials being found in school libraries,” Morath said in his letter to the governor, in reference to the removal of the books, “This is unacceptable and the students of Texas should not be exposed to this harmful content in their local schools.”

The model policy – What is it?

While Morath continued in his letter to say that the newly published policy model is intended to establish procedures related to selecting and reviewing library materials, the TASB compiled an FAQ document in late November 2021 that not only aimed to explain the differences between instructional materials and library books, but clarify some ways in which those materials are vetted. There did not appear to be many significant differences between Morath’s model policy and the guidelines that the TASB previously discussed, though the model did provide an example of an alternate framework through which parents and guardians might interact with classroom materials and library books.

The TASB explanation from November 2021, as well as the model policy, noted that while instructional materials and library books are both instructional resources, they are not the same. Library books are treated differently from materials used during classroom instruction because libraries are places of “voluntary inquiry,” students are not required to read library books, but are required to know the material covered during classroom instruction.

Some differences in the vetting process outlined by TASB included:

  • Instructional materials used in the classroom have a specific, far more strict adoption process in order to make sure classroom instruction follows state law. The process was created to ensure that material in classroom instruction specifically aligns with and supports TEKS.
  • Meanwhile, although state guidelines still need to be considered when making content selections, school libraries have more flexibility in what they allow on shelves because students are not required to interact with the content stored in the library.

However, despite the differences, school libraries and classroom materials are subject to state and federal laws such as the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) and policy in the Texas Penal Code. The TSLAC has also made guidelines available for school library programs and school library material collections for numerous years.

The model policy that was published by Morath and the TEA used the TASB and other guidelines and regulations to present an example of what a Texas public school district’s library materials policy might look like. While both Morath and the TASB have reiterated that each public school district across the state can adopt its own policy, the model offered an adaptable boiler-plate version that covered bases such as the idea of a district following state and federal law or collaborating with community members and education experts when adopting instructional materials.

While the model policy appeared to simply reformat previously discussed TASB guides and processes into a district-level policy document, a notable change was the detail with which the model discussed the idea of parental and community involvement. Multiple pages of the model policy discussed challenge procedures, opportunities for parental review of certain materials, and other parental considerations.

First, the model policy presented “Challenge Procedures” that a parent or district resident could follow to contest library materials used in educational programs.

Notably, the policy presented the procedures in regards to “library material used in the District’s educational program” instead of simply library materials or instructional materials, which left it unclear as to whether the procedures could be used for any library material in the district or any instructional material.

The model policy noted that complaints about library material would be preferably solved informally through a phone call or meeting with the complainant and library and other district officials. However, there was also an outline for a “Request for Reconsideration of Library Materials” form that could be filled out and then reviewed by district officials. The TASB previously said that these forms are used most often across Texas public school district policies.

The model policy then discussed “Parent Review” guidelines for library materials. The example presented a district keeping a printed list of materials onsite and on the school library website that would show what was selected and what was slated for acquisition. The example laid out a review period once each spring and fall that would last at least ten days before books were put on shelves.

Regarding the rights that parents have to review instructional materials, the TASB noted in its 2021 FAQ that parents are entitled to:

  • Review all teaching materials, instructional materials – including while the child is participating in virtual or remote learning – and other teaching aids used in the classroom of the parent’s child;
  • Review each test administered to the child after the test is administered; and
  • Observe virtual instruction while the parent’s child is participating in virtual or remote learning to the same extent the parent would be entitled to observe in-person instruction.

With “Other Parental Considerations”, the model policy noted that while librarians are trained to select materials and might offer guidance to students in selecting texts, “the ultimate determination of appropriateness lies with the student and parent.” Parents, in the example, might contact the campus librarian directly or complete a form for library book opt-out decisions, and librarians would accommodate those requests “within reason.”

The model policy called back to TASB’s previous statements regarding parental rights and library materials with its parental considerations. The TASB commented in 2021 that once a resource has been made available in a school library, its removal implicates students’ First Amendment rights. It also noted that, typically, material review committees that handle complaints about library materials follow the principle that parental control over reading, listening to, or viewing material only extends to their own child.

The removal, not the selection, of library books, raises constitutional concerns, said TASB. The Supreme Court decision related to the matter from 1982 “suggests there is a meaningful difference between curriculum conveyed in a compulsory setting and the school library, which is a place for “voluntary inquiry.” Although school officials retain significant discretion over the contents of the school library, state and local discretion may not be exercised in a way that violates students’ free speech rights by removing books for partisan or political reasons.”

Including providing a resource for people to see the US Department of Justice’s Citizen’s Guide to US Federal Law on Obscenity, the TASB went on to discuss how school officials can and cannot be prosecuted for displaying a “harmful material” to a minor and how a school district might determine that a resource should be removed for a lack of educational value.

What now?

Altogether, the TEA’s model policy appeared to align with previous statements and published guidelines from the TASB. While Morath said that the model policy would be shared with every school system in the state, the TASB has previously discussed how school districts have “significant local control” over instruction and material selection.

The Amarillo Independent School District and the Canyon Independent School District published their board policy manuals online, both of which include details on the most updated policies regarding resources such as library programs and instructional materials.

MyHighPlains.com reached out to both the Amarillo and Canyon school districts to ask for comment on the situation, as well as about any possible action by the district boards, and is waiting for a response.

This story is developing. Check with MyHighPlains.com for updates.