Florida Watch: Districts Clearcut School and Classroom Libraries

Feb 13, 2023 9:00:00 AM


In late January, Andrea Phillips and her educator colleagues in Duval County, Fla., huddled in the media center to watch a district-mandated video. On screen, Supt. Diana Green ordered the faculty to remove all books from school classrooms and libraries that were not part of the required curriculum.

The directive came down as part of the district’s effort to comply with HB 1467, the new Florida law requiring greater transparency, accountability and parent voice regarding which books are permitted in the state’s schools. Duval County is the state’s sixth-largest district, serving more than 129,000 students in Jacksonville.

The irony of the video training taking place during the state’s annual literacy week was not lost on Phillips. She and her colleagues were stunned.

“It was gut-wrenching. The feeling in that meeting, the mumbling and the grumbling of teachers and the commentary between everyone were devastating,” she told Education Post

Many of the teachers don’t know when and what books will return to library shelves and classrooms. 

“We don’t know what the vetting process is. I know that there is a website that media specialists are supposed to enter the information in,” said Shauna Winterbottom, a Florida elementary counselor who requested not to be identified by school or district, fearing repercussions from administrators. “The criteria for approval or disapproval is what we have no idea about. That to me is one of the biggest issues.”

What the New Law Mandates

On paper, Florida's new law governing books in schools doesn't look too forbidding. It simply strengthens many existing transparency requirements regarding book selection and challenges. 

But implementing the new procedures has districts clearing entire classroom and school libraries to ensure all books are vetted before they return to the shelves.

This process is creating chaos on the ground. 

Duval County parent, Brian Covey @jagsfanbrian, shows aftermath of the removal of books in the district’s media centers. 

While librarians have cleared the shelves of their media centers and teachers have hauled their classroom libraries to their cars, Phillips wonders how she will continue mending the gaps in her students’ literacy. “It affects me because my job is to build a foundation of literacy skills with my kids and instill a love of reading in my students,” she says. 

Her free classroom library — compiled over the last two years through yard sales, social media wishlists and neighborhood donations — has now been taken away from her students, who face challenging odds in achieving reading proficiency.

“I work in a low-socioeconomic neighborhood and a lot of my kids do not have books at home. They do not have access to books outside of school,” Phillips says. 

“When all of this came out, a lot of my kids started coming to me and asking, ‘Do I have to give you back the books you gave me?’ I wanted them to keep whatever they had because it was their book to have. They don’t have (non-curriculum school) books they can take home anymore.”

According to a 2022 Jacksonville Public Education Fund report, only 47% of Duval County third graders scored proficient on the English Language Arts (ELA) portion of the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA). Economically disadvantaged students were less likely to demonstrate proficiency in third-grade literacy.

As a counselor, Winterbottom relies heavily on books that aren’t part of a state-approved curriculum. “In my lessons, I use a book and then we talk about the characters in the story,” Winterbottom says. “It’s not the end of the world that I have to get a book approved before I do a lesson, but it’s just frustrating. We don’t know which ones they are going to approve of.”

Over one million books in the district must be reviewed by certified media specialists who have received online training on the maintenance of the selection of library media collections. The training was just released last month. How long it will take to review and approve books remains unclear.

Duval County Public Schools has not responded to requests for comment.

Book Removals Signal a Larger Agenda

This law is just one prong of DeSantis’ hotly-contested “Year of The Parent” agenda positioned to exacerbate parental oversight within classrooms. 

“There’s this narrative that parents know best for their students, but by taking all these books away that opportunity for teachers and parents to make those choices are being taken away as well,” Phillips says. 

The slew of controversial legislation signed last year also prohibits the instruction of sexual orientation in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms and limits the discourse around race through the ban on critical race theory in public schools. 

Winterbottom serves on her school’s Black History Month Committee, which received Title I money for low-income students to  purchase culturally diverse, grade-level appropriate books this February. Now, that initiative has been halted. 

“There were so many good books on Black history and African American culture. It’s upsetting that we weren’t able to purchase those books because kids were able to see themselves in those books,” Winterbottom says.

Duval County has already banned  176 books. Titles include books centered around Black, brown and LGBTQ history, including Black History: Black Frontiers: A History of African American Heroes in the Old West, a biography of Sonia Sotomayor and I Am Jazz, a book for young children about transgender activist and reality television star Jazz Jennings. 

According to Pen America, of the books removed from Florida schools between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, 41% had protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color; 22% directly addressed race and racism; and 33% explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have prominent characters who are LGBTQ+.

The uncertainty surrounding basic materials, like books, only adds to the long-simmering frustration teachers have been experiencing, especially in recent years. Phillips says, with no clear view of what’s next and the sense leaders have lost trust in her professional judgment, she’s feeling fed up. “It brings me to tears to see what’s happening in education. It brings me to tears to hear educators say, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ And I’m one of them.”

Mia Uzzell

Mia Uzzell is student journalist covering grassroots movements, education and HBCU Culture. She’s currently at senior at Florida A&M University.

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