Bill to clarify Tennessee school library law would exempt classroom book collections from scrutiny

Children’s books fill clear plastic reading bins in an elementary school classroom.
Early reading books fill bins in a classroom at Gardenview Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee. (Karen Pulfer Focht / Chalkbeat)

When Tennessee enacted a 2022 law requiring each public school to publish a list of its library books online for parents to see, many educators were surprised later when state officials said the law applies to teachers’ classroom book collections, too.

Now two Democratic lawmakers have proposed legislation to clarify that Gov. Bill Lee’s Age-Appropriate Materials Act was intended to scrutinize books in traditional school libraries, not collections that teachers keep in their classrooms to encourage reading.

The goal of the proposal, says Sen. Jeff Yarbro, is to shield teachers from having to spend their personal time cataloging their classroom collections, which often include hundreds of books. It’s a task that Yarbro views as burdensome and unnecessary — and which he worries could backfire if exasperated teachers opt to box up their books and take them home to avoid the hassle.

“I am hopeful we can work with folks on both sides of the aisle to remove this absurd burden from our teachers,” said the Nashville lawmaker, who is scheduled to bring his bill before the Senate Education Committee on March 8.

Teachers who are trained to teach children to read should be trusted to provide high-quality, age-appropriate books in their classrooms, Yarbro said.

That’s the way that Alice Irvin sees it, too. A second-grade teacher in Franklin, south of Nashville, she’s taught for 30 years, holds a master’s degree in early childhood education, participates in continuing education, and gets evaluated annually by her district. 

“As a highly trained teacher, I find this law insulting,” said Irvin, who has 1,300 titles in her classroom collection. “My library center is the heart of my classroom. Over the years, I’ve purchased hundreds of high-quality children’s books for it.”

Governor called for greater transparency in school libraries

When Tennessee’s Republican governor proposed a review of school library books for age-appropriateness during his 2022 state address, he said the purpose was to “ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries.”

But after the GOP-controlled legislature approved Lee’s proposal, a subsequent memo from the state education department’s attorney said a school library also includes “materials maintained in a teacher’s classroom.” 

The law’s expanded scope, announced as the new school year was starting, surprised even lawmakers who had debated the measure just months earlier.

“I serve on several House education committees and don’t recall classroom book collections ever being brought up during our discussions about this bill,” said Rep. Sam McKenzie, a Democrat from Knoxville.

Yarbro said he hopes the department’s decision to interpret the law broadly was not “politically tainted” by recent Tennessee laws that aim to restrict what teachers can teach and students can read, especially related to race and gender.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro is co-sponsoring a bill that would exempt classroom book collections from Tennessee’s 2022 school library law. (Larry McCormack for Chalkbeat)

Through his bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Darren Jernigan of Old Hickory, he also wants to preempt the challenges of complying with and enforcing the law as it relates to classroom book collections.

“Our early childhood teachers have a hard enough job without the state legislature putting up a bunch of hoops for them to jump through,” Yarbro said. “We’re seeking a common sense solution so that teachers aren’t put in the position of potentially running into legal or compliance issues every time they bring a new book to their classroom.”

“That would just be dumb,” he added.

School leaders have been working on compliance

Last fall, Hamilton County Schools and Murfreesboro City Schools were among several districts that directed teachers to begin cataloging their book collections right away so that schools could publish those lists early in the school year. But most districts spent several months studying the issue and exploring digital tools to help teachers create their inventories.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools sent guidance over winter break directing teachers to use an online platform called Libib to catalog and publish their lists of classroom library materials by the end of the school year.

“We have not asked any teachers to remove or prohibit access to classroom materials while the cataloging process is ongoing,” said district spokesman Sean Braisted.

Knox County Schools sought feedback from its educators before developing a cataloging app and a process to streamline publication of book lists, with some help from the district’s educational assistants, said spokeswoman Carly Harrington. “We expect cataloging will be completed by March 10, prior to leaving for spring break,” she added. 

Other districts, like Irvin’s in Franklin, purchased a scanning app for iPads and used classroom aides to scan books for teachers beginning in January.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools did not respond to multiple requests from Chalkbeat for information about its compliance plan for classroom book collections.

Many teachers and parents haven’t been happy with the process.

“I spent half of my day scanning my library and sorting the books and a good chunk are gone due to them not scanning, being older, etc.,” wrote Natalie Vadas, a special education English teacher at Nashville’s Murrell School, in a Feb. 20 tweet. “How sad that THIS is how we have to spend our time.”

Leslie Wallace said her 8-year-old son came home upset in January when his Knox County teacher announced that students might have to start bringing their own reading books to school because of a new law.

“He loves to read and he said, ‘Mom, if they want us to learn how to read, why are they taking our books away?’” Wallace recounted to Chalkbeat. 

“It was a good question,” she said.

To track the legislation, visit the General Assembly’s website.

Marta Aldrich is a senior correspondent and covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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