“The Battle over Books Is a Battle over Democracy. We Can Win Both.” - National Council of Teachers of English
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Banned Books Week 2022

“The Battle over Books Is a Battle over Democracy. We Can Win Both.”

This post is by NCTE member Cody Miller.

NCTE recently noted that school districts are the “most active battlefield in the American culture wars today.” This assessment speaks to an understanding of school boards’ social and cultural power that demagogic culture warrior Ralph Reed noted in 1996: “I would rather have a thousand school board members than one president and no school board members.” The heart of education policy is located in local political bodies, and the ideological successors to Reed’s legacy are producing a slew of policies that ban books by LGBTQ and  Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) writers.

Book bans are part of a larger bundle meant to curtail any progress made in the past decade, especially progress that emerged from the global Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020. Indeed, the legislative attacks on teaching about race, gender, and sexuality have resulted in a landscape where LGBTQ students can be outed against their will, Black educators are being pushed out of public schools, and LGBTQ teachers are made targets of online hate mobs. Contentious battles over curriculum and policy are always an adjudication of whose voices and experiences matter in public spaces, including public schools. The proliferation of book bans represents legislative assaults on LGBTQ and BIPOC students, educators, authors, and communities.

I, like many educators, feel the sense of dread that accompanies the onslaught of news about the political horrors happening in many states, including my home state of Florida. The high school I graduated from issued an order that NCTE called “a book ban like no other” years after I graduated. Yet, as former educator turned politician Harvey Milk informed, “You gotta give ’em hope.” Two facts make me believe the battle over books and democratic education are winnable in the immediate future if we place importance on school board races.

One, the movement that seeks to target, ban, and attack LGBTQ and BIPOC students and texts is largely losing in school board races. Many of the candidates who ran on racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic platforms lost precisely because of those platforms. These election results echo recent polling data: a CBS poll found that over 80% of voters do not support the type of book bans we’re seeing metastasize in state houses and school boards.

Two, school board races have notoriously low participation rates across the country. These low rates stem from several reasons, including the timing. School board races typically take place in months removed from federal elections in November. In other words, the school board members pushing racist, sexist, homo- and transphobic policies are often sitting in their seats because of a small minority of eligible voters in their constituency. This small minority is often pushed to the polls by actors who want to enact harmful legislation. Reading the previously cited CBS poll, journalist Jamelle Bouie noted that the leaders and activists pushing bans “aren’t capturing the public mood on this issue as much as they are successfully using it to mobilize their supporters and send them to the voting booth.” People who believe in pluralism, public education, and democracy can organize around messages that emphasize the importance of including voices in the curriculum who have historically been silenced and maligned. Public opinion is clearly on the side of open discourse, civic dialogue, and teaching honest history.

As noted above, school board races are often not aligned with the more publicized federal elections, which can make tracking candidates and dates tedious. Fortunately, the XQ Institute offers a free school board tracker that locates school board races and candidates based on your voter registration address. Identifying your current school board members and their stances on curricular legislation is a first step.

In winning school board races, we should also restructure how such elections are constructed and decided. I am a staunch advocate for lowering the voting age to 16 in all elections: local, state, and federal. Until then, lowering the voting age for school board races is a smart, pragmatic approach to support civic engagement and make the lines between voting and political action bolder. We should also push for youth representatives on school boards. Currently, only two states require student representation to be present on school boards. After all, young people have to live with the decisions made by school board members in ways that adults, especially those who do not work in K–12 schools, are often shielded from. Even without access to the ballot box, young people are demonstrating what civic engagement with educational issues can look like. For instance, young people are leading the charge to revise curriculum and redress curricular harm caused by traditional texts and school-sanctioned narratives.

We should also work to recruit and support school board members whose experiences and identities reflect our K–12 student demographics. The political attacks on LGBTQ and BIPOC students are made by school boards that frequently exclude LGBTQ and BIPOC members. A report published by the Victory Institute, a think tank that works on developing LGBTQ civic leaders, documented that less than 1% of school board members in the United States identified as LGBTQ. Similarly, the composition of school boards rarely matches the racial demographics of student bodies they are elected to govern. Running for public office, especially in the current political climate, is not an easy decision to make. The toll elections take on individual candidates and their families is very real, which is why providing support and care to candidates who embody equitable and just values is vital. Candidates and school board members who fight book bans need constituents who fight alongside them.

I understand the hesitancy and criticism toward uplifting voting as the embodiment of civic action. I do not see voting as the ultimate panacea. I also recognize that voting as the sole strategy for change leaves out the participation of millions of people in our public sphere, including undocumented people and people who are or have been incarcerated. Like many people concerned with the erosion of democracy and public education, I believe that “just vote” is an inadequate response to rising authoritarianism. Rather than relying on voting as a singular tactic, I see voting as part of a phalanx of strategies to fight for democracy along with protesting, boycotting, community organizing, and teaching.

The fight for the future of democracy, civic life, and public education is being waged on federal, state, and local levels. The attacks on pluralistic democracy nurtured through public education will not be moved without action from dedicated people. It is a battle we should not have to fight, but it is one I believe we can win.

I would like to thank Averill Kelley, Carrie Mattern, Josh Thompson, and Kate Colantonio-Yurko for reading over drafts of this piece and providing invaluable feedback.

It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.

Cody Miller is an assistant professor of English education at SUNY Brockport. During his seven years as a high school English teacher and in his current role, he positions texts as vehicles to discuss broader socio-political issues in students’ lives and worlds. Miller is the editor of English Leadership Quarterly. He was awarded NCTE’s LGBTQ+ Advocacy & Leadership Award in 2022. He can be reached at hmiller@brockport.edu or on Twitter @CodyMillerELA.