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SC Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver Addresses School Librarians
Updated to add: the draft regulations Weaver seems to be addressing in this speech were made public the following week. As written, they would likely result in a ban of Frederick Douglass’ book, which contains explicit language, violence, and references to sexual assault of enslaved people by slaveowners— all essential to the purpose of the book— and from which Weaver quotes at length during the speech.
On October 13, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver gave some remarks at the Midlands Regional State Department of Education conference workshop. These remarks were recorded by a participant and provide the audio for the video below. In the past, this event had been conducted jointly with The South Carolina Association of School Librarians (SCASL), but this year two other sessions were canceled after Weaver abruptly cut ties with the group without prior communication.
According to the School Library Journal, "The announcement that the state was severing ties was the first time that SCASL members had heard from Weaver since she recorded a welcome video for their annual conference in March. In that message, she told librarians she was grateful for their work and looked forward to seeing them soon. She also shared a story of an encounter with Banned Books Week honorary chair LeVar Burton."
Weaver’s balance of tones has been consistently awkward: celebrating “unity” in one speech while decrying “woke leftists” in others. During her campaign, she openly courted the most extreme elements of the “parental rights” movement in South Carolina, sitting down for formal interviews with Moms for Liberty affiliate Stephanie Berquist, who memorably attempted to take over the Lexington 1 school district on behalf of “parents” after accusing it of “Communism”, and with a Proud Boy-affiliated lowcountry troublemaker who bragged about “storming the Capitol”. Meanwhile, her campaign imagery mostly painted her as a nice lady who liked kids (but also hated “woke indoctrination”).
Similar tonal weirdness has dominated Weaver’s recent public comments, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in her address to librarians who only a few weeks earlier she had cast (via their statewide organization) as radicals bent on destroying parental rights.
Below is a full transcript of the first part of SC Superintendent of Weaver’s recorded comments. See footnotes for context.
On school censorship: “... That is objectively false. These materials are still going to be available at many public libraries, on Amazon1. The question at stake here is, ‘What are we using taxpayer resources within the four walls of our public education system, in front of our students?’” So, that is not censorship, that is not book banning, that is simply professional judgment about how we live together in a pluralistic society.
Secondly, there is no such thing as academic freedom in K12 education2. There is academic freedom in higher ed, but in K12 education we are dealing with minor children and the rights of the parents of those minor children have been clearly established in law and will be upheld within the state of South Carolina.
Third, you will hear this often referred to as a battle over local control. I am a firm supporter of local control, as well as local responsibility. But if you step back for a minute and look at the funding of K12 education in South Carolina, many folks aren’t aware, there are really only 7 to 8 percent of our total funding for education in the state-- and we spent almost $12 billion a year on public education in South Carolina-- only 7 to 8 percent of that comes from the federal government. The other, um, portion of it is a pretty equal split between state and local dollars3. And so, for that massive investment, over $4 billion investment of state taxpayer money in public education in South Carolina, comes a commensurate level of state responsibility for what is taught in our schools. And that precedent is clearly established in the fact that we have state standards that all of our schools teach to, as well as the adoption of curriculum and other things that are provided for at the state level. Um, so again, there’s always a balance of what local control means, but the state does have a clear responsibility and authority to speak into materials that are provided in public schools.
The last thing, and really maybe this is the most important thing that I want to stress on this point, is that you’ll hear it said that this regulation is meant to place a burden on educators, when in reality that is the exact opposite of what our heart and our intents and our role is in this. The fact is, now there is no clear, uniform process, and this creates fear and uncertainty for educators4. And my goal as State Superintendent is to do everything I can to depoliticize our public education system5, and again, return us to the thing that really matters, which is, what are we doing to advance student learning? And that’s why we’re here today. I have a vision of libraries in our state as a place of unity, where we are restoring trust with our community, and with parents, through total transparency. And I believe that libraries and librarians and media specialists are gonna help lead the way to make the promise of public education everything that it was always intended to be. Something that unites us, rather than divides us.
And that’s why I care so deeply about literacy. Literacy is not just a strong part of employability for our students, but it’s about the moral formation of a free people. And when I think about the movie that you may be able to see-- The Right to Read-- I think about the journey of Frederick Douglass. I was recently reading The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass-- some excerpts6. And there’s a very compelling story there about when he was a young man. Um, and he overheard Mrs. Auld-- she and her husband owned him at that time-- Mrs. Auld taught, or was teaching him, how to read. And when Mr. Auld got wind of that, he shut it down. And Frederick Douglass recounts how overhearing Mr. Auld tell Mrs. Auld why she couldn’t teach Frederick to read was the lightbulb that went off in his mind.
He says, “Though conscious of the difficult of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope and a fixed purpose, and at other cost of trouble, to learn how to read.”
Because he understood in overhearing that conversation that reading is the pathway of freedom and opportunity, and I truly believe that that is the case today. Here in South Carolina, just over half of our students are reading on grade level7. And this is an existential crisis. We can’t maintain a society when half of our children don’t possess the very most foundational skills that they need to be successful in life.
And so, as I think about what we are here to talk about today, about the legacy of literacy, I hope that the information, the sessions, the movie that Department staff worked so hard to put together for you, will inspire you in your journey and refresh you and renew you in your calling to support students in their academic journey. And that we can, as a system of public education, find a way to come together and put aside the things that divide us and talk about rather what unites us. Because I truly believe that every parent I have met--left/ right8, black/ white, rural/ urban-- whatever divide you want to talk about-- understands that education is the front door of opportunity for their child’s future. We want every child in South Carolina to graduate ready for college, career, or military. And so that’s the commitment that I make to you all today… [remarks continue].
This is a common Moms for Liberty talking point, and has been repeated often by supporters of censorship legislation. It Ignores the role schools and school libraries play in providing resources for students who don’t have access to Amazon, public libraries (where the same challenge and removals are occurring), or other sources of books and materials.
This is a fairly outrageous claim. Public K-12 students do obviously have well-established rights. In Pico v Island Trees, for example, Justice Brenna wrote, “Students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,’ Tinker v. Des Moines School Dist., 393 U. S. 503, 393 U. S. 506, and such rights may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.”
While this may be true in many districts (the exact amount of local and state contributions vary pretty widely in South Carolina, according to the Office of Revenue and Fiscal Affairs), state funds are not being used to purchase teachers’ classroom libraries, or according to SCASL, school library books. Local elected officials should work with librarians and educators to make these decisions in a way that represents the interests of local taxpayers.
Weaver, herself, has often stoked the fires of controversy over this issue, referencing a campaign by the “radical woke left” to capture “the hearts and minds of our young people” during a Moms for Liberty event this summer. As we have seen across the country-- especially in states like Florida-- state-level regulations prohibiting categories of texts and content do not create more clarity; they create more fear and hostility.
At this point in the recording, at least one audience member audibly chuckles.
The excerpt Weaver references is from Chapter VI of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. A potential irony here is that Douglass overcomes the slavemaster’s censorship only by breaking the law and violating the restrictions his enslavers have placed on him. Updated to add: the draft regulations Weaver seems to be addressing in this speech were made public the following week. As written, they would likely result in a ban of Douglass’ book, which contains explicit language and violence.
Weaver is probably referencing NAEP or other standardized test scores here, which do not necessarily provide the kind of easy snapshot of how “literate” students are that she is suggesting. Unfortunately, this kind of simplistic definition of “reading level” also bleeds over into the censorship regulation that likely provides the basis for these new Board regulations. Throughout the state and country, “age appropriateness” (never clearly defined) is often used to remove or challenge books that otherwise would only have the most obvious political, racial, or gender-related basis for challenge (see spreadsheet for examples).
In Weaver’s remarks at the Moms for Liberty conference, she specially painted the “woke left” as indoctrinators trying to capture the “hearts and minds of children”.