FL Schools Brace for Book Challenges

After passage of a new state law allowing citizens to challenge educational materials in their county, Florida school librarians are wondering what the process will mean for them come fall.

A new state law allows anyone to challenge educational materials in their county

As a conservative Florida organization celebrates the passage of a new state law allowing citizens to challenge educational materials in their county, school librarians are wondering what the process will mean for them when the school year begins. House Bill 989, which Governor Rick Scott signed in late June, focuses on instructional materials. While the organization, Florida Citizens Alliance, is targeting materials related to evolution and climate change, its list of “objectionable materials” also includes many library books, such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Knopf, 1987) and Jennifer Mathieu’s The Truth About Alice (Roaring Brook, 2014). “I think library materials are more susceptible to challenge because we hold a large variety of media on various topics, including ones that some consider to be controversial,” says Elizabeth Zdrodowski, a librarian at Glades Central High School in Belle Glade, FL, and the president of the Florida Association of Media Educators (FAME). “The problem with that is each and every community member has a different standard for what they think is inappropriate, so allowing anyone to challenge materials, even if they don’t have children in our schools, could bury us in challenges.” Zdrodowski says that each district handles challenges in a different way, so FAME is not issuing specific guidance on how to respond. The association, however, is urging librarians to familiarize themselves with district policy and not to allow administrators to pull materials without following that policy.

librarians advised to keep records

FAME is also recommending that librarians keep records of challenges. “I think it will be important to track whether there is an increase in challenges, who is making those challenges, and what the results are,” Zdrodowski says. FAME will post a form for librarians to report this information. The Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) is advising boards to be as open as possible about instructional materials. “Our districts are already pretty diligent about including the public,” says Andrea Messina, FSBA’s executive director. “We recommend they be even more diligent and make sure this is very, very public information.” The Florida Coalition of School Board Members supported the legislation, saying that in some cases, school districts, which chose the curriculum materials, were quick to dismiss concerns from the public. “This legislation makes the curriculum selection process more transparent and allows parents to bring concerns directly to their elected school board members,” says Shawn Frost, Coalition president. The law, he says, “ensures a fair hearing for parents and concerned community members.” Zdrodowski says that most school libraries purchase materials reviewed by sources such as Kirkus Reviews and the Horn Book. She adds that school libraries are largely open to parents and the community and that collections are usually searchable online. The legislation states that once a parent or a county resident submits a petition challenging specific materials, the school board in that county must hold at least one public hearing before “an unbiased and qualified hearing officer who is not an employee or agent of the school district.” Currently, one of the primary questions Florida educators have about the bill is who will fill the role of “qualified hearing officer.” “How will they be chosen? Who will choose them? It’s very fuzzy,” says Anne Hartley, an associate professor in the Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences at Florida Gulf Coast University. Hartley also has a daughter in the Collier County Public Schools, which faced a series of challenges in 2015 and created a virtual system that allows parents to see the books students are checking out from the library. Frost suggests that local school boards will choose the hearing officers. Even when district officials go through a full review process and seek public comment, sometimes no one shows up, says Messina. So the district can still face a future challenge. In addition, Hartley notes that those who are opposed to certain educational materials often don’t use the formal challenge process anyway and instead contact the media. Hartley finds it ironic that organizations that advocate for more parental oversight of education want residents without children in school to have a say in curriculum and related materials. “They are taking that right away from parents.” Debbie Tanner, a librarian at S.D. Spady Elementary School in Delray Beach, part of the Palm Beach school district, finds it troubling that a citizen in one part of such a diverse county—in the populous areas along the beach, for example—could dictate what’s allowed in a school across the county in more rural areas. “There’s a really big cultural divide,” she says. “Someone in Boca [Raton] could challenge a book and then everybody has to take that off.”

ALA, in a Crisis

Why wasn’t there a bigger fight over the bill? Messina says that other controversial legislation drew more attention, such as a law that now requires school districts to share property tax revenue with charter schools. According to James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, greater coordination among organizations opposing the law might have made a difference in whether the bill received enough support to pass. “In many states, the library community is split—one association for public and academic librarians, another for school librarians. Sometimes both of them have lobbyists; sometimes neither can afford them. When an issue like this pops up, lobbyists for either group might say, ‘This isn’t about the library,’ so not even notice it,” he says, adding that even if they want to oppose it, they might miss the chance while it’s still in committee. “Ideally, legislative groups from school and nonschool libraries should watch for curricular limits and act jointly through both lobbyists to oppose them. ALA can assist; we have ‘crisis’ teams that try to get all the parties on the phone to strategize. And we can add our name to those opposed to the initiatives.” Zdrodowkski says her organization worked with the Florida Education Association, the Classroom Teachers Association, and others to oppose the bill. “The governor received record amounts of phone calls, faxes, and emails and chose not to listen to his constituents,” she said. “That’s not on FAME; that’s on him.” Another provision in the law deletes a requirement that districts use half of their instructional materials allocation to purchase digital materials. That could mean that districts that have been expanding ebook collections or online databases in a drive to “create Future Ready schools for our digital natives may no longer choose to do so,” Zdrodowski said. “Hopefully, schools and districts will continue to adopt this best practice in spite of the change in requirements.”    

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