As Virginia's gubernatorial race neared its end, an unexpected issue came to the fore: a fight over school assignments from eight years earlier.
In 2013, a Republican family was outraged when an AP English class assigned a Pulitzer Prize winning novel from Toni Morrison. This ultimately led GOP state legislators to push measures that would've required schools to notify parents about "explicit" assignments and require teachers to make alternative arrangements in response to parental objections.
Terry McAuliffe, the then-governor, vetoed these efforts, and his 2021 Republican rival, Glenn Youngkin, based much of his closing message on the controversy. When the Democratic nominee said during a debate this year, "I don't think parents should be telling schools what they should teach," it only added fuel to the fire.
Youngkin, we now know, narrowly won the race — at which point his party decided to use his Virginia candidacy as a template. The day after Youngkin's victory, Republican strategists started rebranding the GOP as "the party of parents." House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy even pledged to unveil "a parents' bill of rights."
But what does this mean in practice? The NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., reported yesterday on developments in one Virginia county this week:
The Spotsylvania County School Board directed staff to remove books with “sexually explicit” material from libraries after a parent raised concerns about books available through a school’s digital library app at Monday’s meeting. The discussion was prompted by concerns raised by Christina Burris, the mother of a Riverbend High School student, who said she was alarmed that LGBTQIA fiction was immediately available through the library app.
Two of the school board members said at the public meeting that they'd like to see the removed books burned. They did not appear to be kidding.
And while I'm mindful of the fact that local controversies need not always be nationalized, there is a larger pattern to consider.
A Kansas school district this week started pulling several well-known novels from school libraries, including “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and a Pulitzer Prize winning play from August Wilson. It was against this backdrop that a Republican state legislator in Texas put together a list of 850 books he believes might make students feel uncomfortable — and then asked schools which of the titles are available to students.
The Texas Tribune reported yesterday that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott directed state officials to investigate criminal activity related to "the availability of pornography" in Texas public schools. The governor also this week asked state officials to develop new standards keeping "obscene content" out of public schools.
There's no reason to believe Texas schools make "pornography" or "obscene content" available to students, but as the GOP rebrands as "the party of parents" and "leans into the culture war," it apparently means targeting school libraries and literary assignments in English classes.
Perhaps McAuliffe's debate comment, which was widely seen as a horrible gaffe, was right after all.
To be sure, these fights are not altogether new. Conservative activists have launched all kinds of related efforts for generations, targeting books they deemed morally and socially unworthy for one reason or another.
But Nora Pelizzari, a spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Censorship told The Washington Post, “What has taken us aback this year is the intensity with which school libraries are under attack.
She added, “Particularly when taken in concert with the legislative attempts to control school curricula, this feels like a more overarching attempt to purge schools of materials that people disagree with. It feels different than what we’ve seen in recent years.”
Given the excitement in Republican circles about Youngkin's success in Virginia, the problem is likely to get worse.