New school year highlights book, curriculum bans facing America's teachers

A series of stories this week show the conditions educators are dealing with as they return to the classroom and libraries.

A U.S. high school classroom
A U.S. high school classroom. (Getty Images)
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Two stories of teachers facing discipline and a gubernatorial candidate using flamethrowers underscore the difficulties facing educators as the new school year begins.

The Washington Post reported this week on the story of a South Carolina teacher, Mary Wood, returning to school following a reprimand earlier this year after two students in her Advanced Placement English class filed a complaint that she had assigned Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a book on race in America by an award-winning Black author.

The two complainants in the all-white class said the assignment violated a rule forbidding teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” over their race. Coates showed up at a school board meeting this summer to support Wood, whose firing was advocated by many attendees despite the fact that she had taught the book the previous year without complaint.

A Texas middle school teacher was fired after assigning her eighth grade class an illustrated version of The Diary of Anne Frank, the book by a Jewish teenager who wrote about her experience hiding from the Nazis, because it contained a passage describing genitalia. The Beaumont, Texas, outlet KFDM reported that while the school district has claimed the book was not approved, it was on a reading list sent to parents at the start of the school year.

In Missouri, a Republican state senator who is running for governor in 2024 and one of his colleagues used flamethrowers on a stack of boxes at a fundraising event.

“In the video, I am taking a flamethrower to cardboard boxes representing what I am going to do to the leftist policies and RINO corruption of the [Jefferson] City swamp,” state Sen. Bill Eigel told the Kansas City Star in a statement. “But let’s be clear, you bring those woke pornographic books to Missouri schools to try to brainwash our kids, and I’ll burn those too — on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.”

The stories highlight the challenges that teachers and educators are dealing with in the current political climate.

Read more on Yahoo News: Book bans: In 3 years, 60 texts have been challenged in Iowa schools. A new law could ban more, from USA Today

How we got here

School library
School curricula have become a flash point in today's culture wars. (Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an outsized impact on teachers, who were demonized in the media and targeted by some parents for their concerns about returning to in-person instruction without proper safety measures against the virus. Then came a wave of laws across the country in Republican-controlled states that have restricted lesson plans and books that discuss race, gender and sexuality.

Such challenges are often coordinated by groups like Moms for Liberty, a Republican-aligned group supporting conservative school board candidates that has risen in prominence since its founding in 2021.

The compounding issues have led to massive teacher shortages in many areas of the country. Trina Berg, an Arizona teacher and union president, told NBC News last month, “It’s a lack of respect that the position seems to have right now. We’re under attack, unfortunately, by different parent groups and different political groups. And then everything kind of just builds up on you.”

A day after the Missouri state senator pledged to burn “woke” books, the American Library Association released its preliminary report on book challenges so far this year, finding that nearly 2,000 titles were targeted. According to the group, this represented a 20% increase over the same period in 2022, which featured the highest number of book challenges since tracking began more than two decades ago. Books by authors of color and LGBTQ authors have been disproportionately targeted.

Read more on Yahoo News: In Florida, more than 300 books have been removed from school shelves, from HuffPost

A push for ‘parental rights’

Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promoting the so-called Stop WOKE Act in Hialeah Gardens, Fla., in April 2022. (Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald via Zuma Press Wire)

Florida is facing one of the nation’s largest teacher shortages. It’s also been the epicenter of the parental rights push by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is running in the 2024 presidential race. Teachers there have cited low pay and a series of restrictions put in place by DeSantis like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, as well as a law banning critical race theory, an academic study of racism’s systemic impact that is generally not taught below the university level.

The results of those laws are confusion over whether the state’s schools can offer an Advanced Placement course in psychology and changes to the AP African American studies program.

The state faced blowback this summer for introducing new education standards that included teaching the benefits of slavery, and has approved the use of videos from PragerU, a nonaccredited outlet founded by conservative radio host Dennis Prager that opponents call right-wing propaganda due to its content on subjects like the Civil War and climate change. The state placed No. 1 in the Educational Freedom rankings assembled by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

In June 2022, the Washington Post reported that more than 160 educators had lost their jobs over political debates during the previous two academic years. Recent examples include a Wisconsin teacher who was critical of the district for not allowing the Dolly Parton-Miley Cyrus song “Rainbowland” to be performed at a concert and the termination of a Georgia teacher for reading to her class from a book on gender identity.