Press Club

Peter’s Take: Richmond Politicians Shouldn’t Censor APS Curriculum

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

If enacted into law, a bill that now has passed both houses of the Virginia legislature would enable Richmond politicians and bureaucrats to censor APS teachers’ decisions regarding what books to assign in APS classrooms.

Background

Under HB 516, the Virginia state Department of Education would be required to establish a uniform, statewide policy that would require every local public school district in Virginia to:

  1. Notify the parent of any student whose teacher reasonably expects to provide instructional material that includes sexually explicit content. Such notification shall (i) directly identify the specific instructional material and sexually explicit content contained in such material and (ii) set forth the parent’s options pursuant to subdivisions 2 and 3;
  2. Permit the parent of any student to review instructional material that includes sexually explicit content upon request; and
  3. Provide, as an alternative to instructional material and related academic activities that include sexually explicit content, nonexplicit instructional material and related academic activities to any student whose parent so requests.

As a recent Washington Post story explained, this proposed state legislation “all started with Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County woman who said she was horrified to discover that one of her sons, a high school senior, had been assigned to read Toni Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘Beloved.'”

Under HB 516, the state Board of Education would get to define for every local school district what does and does not constitute “sexually explicit content.”

Discussion

An English teacher posted this comment to the recent Washington Post story:

I assure you that if this insane plan becomes law that we English teachers will have to give a heads up about sex, graphic language, and violence for such works … as “The Canterbury Tales,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” “MacBeth,” “1984,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “Huck Finn,” “Night,” as well as a good percentage of the recommended readings for both AP Literature and Composition and IB courses. … [S]tudents can be given alternative readings and teachers have learned to do this without the students feeling singled out or traumatized! 

Another Post commenter convincingly warned:

This is not about “a parent being able to opt their child out of a reading assignment.” If this bill passes, I guarantee there is already a group ready to complain en-masse, and make a big enough stink that a given book will be rejected by a teacher or school system wanting to avoid the controversy. Thus, they will get to determine what is “appropriate” for everyone’s kids.

About half of Virginia’s local school districts already require teachers to give parents advanced warning of “potentially sensitive or controversial materials in the classroom.” APS itself has adopted guidelines in this area. Under current Virginia law, any other local school district can choose to do so as well.

Conclusion

HB 516 raises serious censorship issues under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This bill is an ill-conceived and foolish effort by state legislators to set statewide standards regarding a set of issues that should be decided locally by APS and each other local school district in Virginia. Governor McAuliffe should veto this bill.

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