Proposal would give state board control over books in SC school libraries

Decisions about what books are on local school library shelves across South Carolina could...
Decisions about what books are on local school library shelves across South Carolina could soon be under the control of leaders in Columbia.(Mary Green)
Published: Nov. 14, 2023 at 8:30 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Decisions about what books are on local school library shelves across South Carolina could soon be under the control of leaders in Columbia.

It comes as conservative groups’ challenges to school library books are growing nationwide, especially targeting materials with racial or LGBTQ+ themes.

Right now, if someone believes material in a school library is inappropriate, they can file a complaint with the school district and its board.

Their challenge generally ends with the board’s decision, one way or another.

But if a new regulation proposed by the South Carolina Department of Education is enacted, that person would be able to appeal the local decision to the State Board of Education.

The State Board would have final say over whether that book can be on shelves in the district where it was challenged and in every other school library across South Carolina, because their ruling would apply statewide.

So a book deemed inappropriate in the original school district where the complaint was filed would not be allowed in any school in the state.

“Proposed regulations like these suggest that educators like me, as well as school librarians, do not know how to do our jobs or what is best for the students we serve,” veteran educator Mary Foster told board members at their meeting in Columbia on Tuesday, the first time the proposed regulation came before them.

But Miles Coleman, a Greenville-based attorney with Nelson Mullins working as outside counsel for the South Carolina Department of Education, said this regulation is needed to create uniform standards across the state.

“I believe the vast majority, again, of teachers, librarians, educators, administrators, district board members are good people, acting in good faith,” Coleman said. “But that doesn’t mean we can just allow everything to continue in the undefined, inconsistent, nontransparent way that in some, but not all, instances we have seen.”

The regulation outlines a two-pronged test to determine if materials are OK: They must be “educationally suitable and aligned with the purpose of South Carolina’s instructional program” — essentially, in accordance with state standards — and “age and developmentally appropriate.”

The proposal deems books inappropriate if they include descriptions or depictions of sexual conduct or depictions considered “obscene” or “indecent” under federal regulations.

“Freedom to read does not mean freedom to give a child material that he or she is not prepared to process emotionally,” Kay Mein, a mom and resident of Lexington School District Two, said.

But other parents and educators told state board members Tuesday that this regulation would strip local school boards of their authority to determine what is in their schools, based on their own community standards.

“With all due respect, we do not want the state coming in and overriding what we’ve done locally. We don’t want the state taking over control of our local school board and our public libraries,” Melinda Hendrickson with Beaufort County group “Families Against Book Bans” said.

Under this regulation, anyone who lives in a school district would be able to file a complaint about the books in its libraries, regardless of whether they are a parent or have any other connection to the district.

“Parents should always have the ability to know what’s taught in their children’s classroom, and the appropriate remedy for non-parents with concerns is through the ballot box, not through administrative complaints with materials that will never enter their home,” Patrick Kelly with the Palmetto State Teachers Association said.

Gov. Henry McMaster called the proposal a good idea, telling reporters he supports giving the State Board oversight over this local authority.

“I don’t know that it’s being exercised by the local boards, from what I’ve seen,” McMaster said. “I think it would be better to have a statewide policy. This would go to the State Board of Education, and I think that’s a good place for it.”

The State Board advanced the proposal Tuesday but did not vote on whether it will adopt it.

That vote is scheduled for early next year, when there will also be an opportunity for public comment.

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