Utah public schools would be required to use a rating system for books and other instructional materials under legislation now before the Utah House of Representatives.
Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, sponsor of HB464, said the legislation would save school resources because once a local school district or public charter school determined a book or other instructional material ran afoul of Utah law and that was ratified by the state school board “then it’s out statewide.”
Once that bright line determination is made — that descriptions or depictions of illicit sex or sexual immorality has no serious value for minors — “not every LEA (local education agency) has to continue to try to reinvent the wheel when we’re talking about these bright line materials,” Ivory said.
Book rating systems
Jennie Earl, vice chairwoman of the Utah State Board of Education, told the House Education Committee on Thursday that there are a number of rating systems available online that educators could reference moving forward.
“I think if we do some kind of a system it needs to be basic. It needs to be clear. This is the law in Utah. These are violations of the law. These things are not age appropriate,” said Earl, who said she was speaking for herself, not the full board, which has not yet taken a position on HB464.
“BookLooks has one. It’s a very simple 1 to 5. Some of these things are ‘out’ at certain ages. It goes further than just the sexualized content. It also has language and violence things like that built into it. Common Sense Media has a similar type of a thing and also, Rated Books has just a breakdown,” she said.
RatedBooks.org links to the LaVerna in the Library Facebook page, featured on the website of the parents rights organization Utah Parents United.
“LaVerna in the Library, posts screenshots of ‘offensive’ passages so that volunteers can rate them,” according to an MIT Technology Review article titled “How conservative Facebook groups are changing what books children read in school.”
The article continues, “For books in Utah, the group puts what law the book supposedly violates, and all of this is available in a searchable spreadsheet.”
What would the law do?
HB464 would also require school districts and charter school boards to engage review processes when a parent alleges that instructional material is prohibited by state law. The bill also would require a board to “publicly vote on and explain a determination to reinstate or preserve student access to challenged instructional material.”
House Minority Leader Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said the bill raises many concerns because people have such varied life experiences.
“I can tell you, one of the books that always gets brought up is ‘The Bluest Eye,’ saved my life when I was in high school. I would hate for a kid like me not to be able to read a book because some parent or some individual found it offensive because they only take parts of that book out so I can’t support this bill,” she said.
The novel, authored by Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison, explores themes of race, class and beauty standards.
The House Education Committee voted 7-6 to send HB464 to the House of Representatives for further consideration.
Library book challenges
The legislation builds on HB374, which was passed on the final night of last year’s legislative session.
HB374, prohibits materials that describe or depict pornographic or indecent acts in Utah’s public elementary, middle and high schools.
“A lot of really, really good things are happening in a lot of parts of Utah, but in other parts, not so much,” Ivory said.
The bill’s passage spurred hundreds of book challenges and school boards scrambled to develop policies on how to handle book challenges.
In a report to the Education Interim Committee in November, the Alpine School District reported that it had assembled 25 district committees made up of patrons and school employees to conduct reviews.
Meanwhile, a Davis School District official told the committee that the district has convened 13 committees made up of parents, educators and others to review 44 books.
Transparency through technology?
The committee also gave a favorable recommendation to HB465, which would require public schools that have school libraries to provide an online platform that allows parents to view what materials their child borrows from the school library. The vote was 10-2.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Douglas Welton, R-Payson, who is a high school teacher, said the legislation is intended to “put control in parents’ hands.”
An online platform would enable parents to see what their child has or has not checked out from the school library at any given time.
If the library had a ratings system for its materials, that could be included on the platform, as well as a notification if a community member had filed a challenge to a certain title or other material.
The information would give parents or guardians information to launch conversations between children and their parents “but this puts some control into parents’ hands.”
Will kids stop using the library?
Rep. Carol Moss, D-Holladay, a retired high school teacher, said the students she taught likely would not have been happy knowing their parents could see every book they checked out from the school library.
“So they’ll probably stop using school libraries,” Moss said.
Welton replied, “Well, that’s true. I would argue from my experience in a library, they hang out in the libraries a lot, they browse but they don’t check out a lot of books.”
HB465 seeks no appropriation so schools would bear the cost of the platform themselves, Welton said.
Michele Edgley, president of the Utah Educator Library Media Association and a parent of four students, said about 20 Utah school districts have the capacity to enact the requirements of HB465.
But for the other 22 “we would need additional funding. It would have to be a great deal of funding to get all of our rural districts on board,” she said.
As the bill stands, Edgley spoke in opposition, noting that school librarians would love the funding to establish platforms, but schools also need certified teacher librarians throughout the state “so that they can manage these resources.”