Republicans Continue to Close the Book on Freedom to Read in School

We are thrilled to introduce a new partnership with Mr. Kurt Loft, an esteemed journalist who writes stories and essays for a number of publications and organizations, including Florida Trend, the Daily Beast, Tampa General Hospital, University of South Florida, The Florida Orchestra, the Straz Center, and Creative Pinellas Arts Coast Journal. Before retiring to focus on freelance projects, he spent 27 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune and 13 years as a senior writer for PricewaterhouseCoopers. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Cindy, a court stenographer. We're over-the-moon to have our very own resident journalist. You can dig into his first entry below!

Republicans Continue to Close the Book on Freedom to Read in School

By Kurt Loft

My parents had the good sense to raise their children in a house full of books. I was the first kid on my block to own a 24-volume LIFE nature library, which I dog-eared through countless nights studying for school science projects. The power of books – fact and fiction – opened my little mind to a very big world.

So, I read with concern how Florida’s governor, members of the state legislature, and a number of school boards are trying to limit access or distort the view of that big world. Here at home, books in public schools have been removed or restricted, and in one case, religious proverbs are being proposed in place of traditionally accepted text.

This week in Pinellas County, the school district pulled five books without receiving any formal complaints about their content. The administration also told schools to “reclassify’’ about a dozen other volumes.

The district’s action mirrors a trend taking place across Florida, notes the Tampa Bay Times: “Rather than file formal complaints and go through a public hearing, parents and other residents have started to recite out-of-context excerpts at board meetings and demand action.’’

In Pasco County, some parents are objecting to the school board’s use of evangelical Christian writing from Foundations in Personal Finance by Dave Ramsey, a conservative right-wing author and online personality. The parents say creating a “Bible-based textbook’’ runs counter to the premise that schools should educate rather than indoctrinate.

“Bible verses do not belong in public schools,’’ Brian Kelly of Land O’ Lakes said in a Sept. 17 report in the Times. “And Dave Ramsey isn’t qualified to provide (instruction) in a secular classroom.’’

Whether altering content is any worse than removing a book may be a matter of debate. But Governor Ron DeSantis is emphatic about the latter, saying “There’s not been a single book banned in the state of Florida.’’ He went so far as to call any allegation of book removal by his government a “hoax.’’

DeSantis press release

Politifact calls DeSantis’ statement, in a word, false. It refers to a report in April by PEN America – a non-profit that advocates for freedom of speech and tracks book bans – that says more than 350 books had been deleted from Florida school libraries in the second half of 2022 alone. Nationally in that same time frame, the group found nearly 1,500 instances of individual books banned, affecting about 875 titles − the majority written by people of color, women and LBGTQ authors.

See index of book bans

Moms for Liberty, founded in Florida in 2021 by a group of conservative women, is at the forefront of the movement to restrict or ban books, as well as to limit discussions about race and LGBTQ identities. One of their aims is to populate local school boards with Republican conservatives. Their work promotes an “anti-student inclusion agenda’’ that is blatantly extremist, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy organization based in Alabama.

“They really are seeking to undermine public education holistically and to divide communities,” Rachel Carroll Rivas, the center’s deputy director for research, reporting and analysis, told National Public Radio.

In defending DeSantis, Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr. said in a vague statement that “Florida is committed to rigorous academic content and high standards so that students learn how to think and receive the tools necessary to go forth and make great decisions.”

However, a consideration is not whether someone can or can’t pull a book off the shelf in school – it’s about whether someone’s ready access to ideas has been denied or diminished in a public institution and why, notes Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs. Watering down the terminology only masks the problem.

“To avoid charges of censorship, school administrators, government officials and groups like Moms for Liberty have taken to calling the results of their efforts quarantine or curation – anything but ban,’’ Friedman wrote in a USA Today editorial.

In this sense, it isn’t just the prohibitions on books that should concern those who believe in protecting the freedom to read, Friedman adds, “but also the full range of ways in which authorities may exert control over access to information.’’

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