Tennessee textbook commission hires first staff to prepare for school library book appeals

Four books stand up on a bookshelf.
Under the recent wave of book challenges, themes about race and systemic racism were early targets. But the range of censored content has widened to include narratives about sexual violence, LGBTQ+ topics, and transgender identities. (Ana Fernandez / AFP via Getty Images)

Tennessee’s all-volunteer textbook commission is gearing up to consider new challenges to school library books after state lawmakers broadened the definition of what materials are prohibited.

Two years after the Republican-controlled legislature gave the commission broad new appellate powers to decide ultimately which books students can and can’t access in public school libraries, the panel has yet to receive its first case for review.

But that is expected to change. And for the first time, the commission will have its own full-time staff to support its growing workload, led by a recently retired school librarian from Crossville who formerly served on the commission.

Lee Houston, who has 30-plus years of experience as an elementary school teacher, coach, and librarian, became the body’s executive director in March.

The panel also hired an administrative assistant in early May and is seeking a full-time attorney.

With a potential flood of book challenges and appeals in a state that’s one of the nation’s leaders in banning books, Gov. Bill Lee and the legislature have budgeted $500,000 for the commission to staff up, plus another $55,000 for operational expenses, to help manage the significant expansion of its mandate.

Linda Cash, the commission’s chairperson, said the dedicated support is critical, especially as book complaints work their way through local school boards.

“We expect to start seeing some of those trickle up to us,” said Cash, superintendent of Bradley County Schools.

“I think everybody on the commission will take this very seriously and understands the weight and magnitude of any decision,” she added.

Books that some parents find objectionable could be removed statewide

Amid a nationwide backlash to the racial-justice movement that began in 2020, Tennessee was among the first states to pass laws aimed at restricting what teachers can discuss in the classroom and reviewing what books are available to students.

Themes about race and systemic racism, disparaged by hardline conservatives as “woke ideology,” were among early targets. But the range of censored content has widened to include narratives about sexual violence, LGBTQ+ topics, and transgender identities.

The American Library Association reports 350 titles were challenged in 2023 in school libraries or other public libraries across Tennessee.

The organization does not disclose where those challenges occurred, since much of the data comes from confidential reports from libraries. But based on various news reports, districts in McMinn, Roane, Rutherford, Sumner, Wilson, and Williamson counties, as well as Collierville near Memphis, have been hot spots.

And the number of book challenges is likely to increase based on recent revisions to Tennessee’s age-appropriate materials law sponsored by Rep. Susan Lynn of Mt. Juliet and Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald.

The 2022 law, which the governor pushed for, requires schools to periodically screen their library materials for “age appropriateness,” based on local standards and community input. A second law, which also passed in 2022, directs the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission to rule on appeals of local decisions about individual books and gives the panel authority to ban them statewide.

This year, during the final days of the legislative session, lawmakers added a provision allowing a complainant to take a book challenge straight to the state commission if a school board doesn’t address a complaint within 60 days.

More significantly, the revised law defines what’s “suitable” for library collections in K-12 schools and classrooms. It flags any material that “in whole or in part contains nudity, descriptions or depictions of sexual excitement, sexual conduct, excess violence, or sadomasochistic abuse.”

Previously, the law required library materials to be appropriate for the age and maturity levels of students who could access the materials, as well as consistent with the educational mission of the school.

Supporters of the laws say they are protecting children and older students from age-inappropriate, sexually explicit material and exploitation. But critics say the goal is censorship — and that the changes will violate First Amendment freedoms.

Either way, the broadened definition puts a young-adult novel at risk of being banned for even a single paragraph referencing sexual excitement. A children’s picture book such as the Caldecott Award-winning classic “No, David!” could be pulled because one page shows the naked backside of a mischievous boy running down a street.

The 1929 novel “All Quiet on the Western Front” could be targeted for its detailed descriptions of physical and mental trauma suffered by soldiers during World War I. So could Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which portrays brutal and abusive sex as a tool of power when early America allowed slavery.

“They’ve tweaked the definition of their own law by not including that the work has to be considered as a whole, or that it’s protected if it has serious value, whether literary, artistic, political, or scientific,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“This is effectively banning complex works of literature that are read and used in 11th- and 12th-grade classrooms for students preparing for higher education or to enrich their own education,” she said, adding that “this might close off a whole wealth of literature that deals with difficult topics that, for instance, are part of study plans for the AP English test.”

Former librarian will lead commission’s work

Even before taking on book challenge responsibilities, the state textbook commission, whose 11 volunteer members are appointed by the governor and speakers of the Senate and House, had a full plate. Its primary task has been recommending new lists of textbooks and instructional materials for approval by the State Board of Education based on Tennessee’s ongoing revisions of its academic standards.

Currently, the commission is in the middle of the textbook adoption cycle for new science materials, a process that takes up to 18 months.

“It’s daunting and important work,” said Cash, the panel’s chairperson, “because it affects all public school students and teachers across Tennessee.”

In 2022, when the panel was given its new appellate powers over book challenges, Cash pleaded for funding to hire full-time staff as the commission missed its first big deadline to publish compliance guidelines under the new law. The legislature subsequently allocated funding so that the body no longer has to rely on the state education department for administrative help.

“We are very thankful for these positions,” Cash said.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, said Republicans have essentially created a new layer of government bureaucracy.

“It was a bad idea to start with, and now they’re throwing a half million dollars at it,” said the Nashville Democrat. “And for what? There’s nothing more undemocratic than pulling books off the shelves of public schools.”

Four people sit at a table talking.
Lee Houston speaks during a meeting of the Tennessee Textbook and Quality Materials Commission on Nov. 18, 2022, as Chairperson Linda Cash listens. Houston, who was a school librarian at the time, stepped down from the commission in March to become its first executive director. (Marta W. Aldrich / Chalkbeat)

Houston, the panel’s first executive director, worked most recently at Brown Elementary, a public school in Cumberland County, which is represented by House Speaker Cameron Sexton. In 2022, Sexton appointed her to the textbook commission, where at one of her first meetings, she argued for a rule to require that each commissioner read an appealed book in its entirety before voting.

“Context is important,” she said at the time.

In a recent interview with Chalkbeat, Houston said she expects that her new job, with an annual salary of $105,000, will focus largely on the textbook adoption process.

“We have no book appeals before us right now,” she said. “But as a commission, we will uphold the law.”

School librarians feel under attack

For school librarians across Tennessee, the latest statute revisions look like government censorship and overreach as they find themselves caught in the crossfire of national culture wars, fueled in part by pro-censorship websites like Book Looks and Rated Books.

“Do challenged books still go through due process? Or are we just supposed to pull them if they include a picture of Michelangelo’s naked statue of David?” asked Lindsey Kimery, a leader with the Tennessee Association of School Librarians.

As the library supervisor for Metro Nashville Public Schools, she considers Tennessee’s recent school library laws an affront to her profession. And she is concerned they are creating a climate of fear, especially in rural school systems without a library coordinator.

“I worry we’ll see more soft censorship there, the quiet removal of books, because there’s not someone with school library experience at the district level who has a voice at the table when it comes to dealing with these challenging times,” Kimery said.

Meanwhile, she said, librarians are “holding tight” until district-level attorneys can provide legal guidance.

“If librarians proactively remove a lot of books, we could see challenges related to censorship. If we don’t, I expect some individuals or groups will try to test the process to see what they can and can’t do,” she said. “Some school districts may just elect to let the complaints go directly to the state to deal with.”

“No matter how you slice it,” she added, “it’s bad.”

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

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