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The War on Librarians
This post was originally published on the South Carolina Education Association’s CEWL website.
So many people told me, you're not qualified for this job.
-Ellen Weaver (panel discussion, Moms for Liberty Joyful Warriors Summit 2023)
Last week, South Carolina Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver formally cut ties between the state Department of Education and the South Carolina Association of School Librarians (SCASL), a relationship which has been consistent across Democratic, Republican, and nonpartisan superintendent administrations in the state for five decades. To many reading the news, this probably seemed like an out-of-left-field move from a superintendent who has made few in-state public appearances since taking office this year (although it might seem more surprising if she didn’t seem to be so good at generating unnecessary controversy). As Jace Woodrum, director of the ACLU of South Carolina, aptly pointed out in an interview with the Post and Courier, Weaver’s organization Palmetto Promise Institute had criticized SCASL in the past (including in the weird culture war “dossier” written by former neo-Confederate magazine editor Oran Smith), and Weaver could have reached out to the organization in advance of severing ties, if she wasn’t merely “playing political games”. It seems like regardless of SCASL’s actions, Weaver was waiting for a pretext to make her move.
And to those following national education politics, that move probably made perfect sense. Weaver did appear at the Moms for Liberty “Joyful Warriors” conference this summer, as part of a panel with prominent culture warrior school officials from Florida and Oklahoma. The panel was extremely light on common-sense or research-based education policies, but heavy on fear-mongering anti-“woke” talking points. By appearing only days after M4L was designated an antigovernment extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and shortly after one M4L affiliate made headlines for quoting Hitler, Weaver sent a strong signal that she was more interested in joining in the culture war antics of national rightwing groups than in contributing to serious policy discussions in her own state.
And one of those national rightwing groups, the “Freedom Caucus,” had already declared war on a different librarian organization. Starting in late July, a number of state organizations aligned with the “State Freedom Caucus Network” began to write letters attacking the American Library Association and demanding that local librarian associations break with the group. A few weeks before Weaver’s statement (on July 18), the SC Freedom Caucus affiliate fired off a letter targeting the new ALA president for being “a self-proclaimed lesbian Marxist” and suggesting that her sexuality came with a “sexual ideology”1. Yesterday on Twitter (or whatever it’s called now), Andy Roth, President of the State Freedom Caucus Network, called on governors to continue the push against the ALA.
So what was SCASL’s crime? According to Weaver, it was having the temerity to suggest that challenging books for nakedly political purposes, and using the power of state agencies and legislation to do so, constitutes “censorship or bans”. Of course, even if that were really an issue, now would be an odd time to suddenly realize that the ALA and SCASL, along with many other organizations of librarians, are generally against censorship and bans, since that has long been a core value of the association.
Weaver’s letter to SCASL read, in part:
Regrettably, a number of SCASL’s recent communications via its website (such as the American Library Association’s Advocacy Toolkit), in testimony regarding library “censorship” before members of the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Taskforce, and most recently in a letter sent to local school board members undermine that vital objective.
(Links are Weaver’s; importantly, she did not include a link to the alleged “letter sent to local school board members”.)
So for those following along at home, Weaver is formally giving the silent treatment to SCASL, and by extension eliminating access to professional development programs librarians rely upon, just as the school year begins, because the association testified before a formal legislative taskforce2, and included links to an ALA slideshow that doesn’t actually say any of the things she suggests it does. And, in an amazing feat of irony, her letter’s main thesis is that SCASL is wrong to suggest that state censorship is a problem, while the same letter uses Weaver’s power as a constitutional officer to censor the association.
Weaver’s letter continued:
Parents are entirely justified in seeking to ensure educational materials presented to their children are age-appropriate and aligned with the overall purpose of South Carolina’s instructional program and standards. When SCASL labels those efforts as bans, censorship, or a violation of educators’ intellectual freedom, the result is a more hostile environment which does not serve the needs of students.
Of course, parents are justified in reviewing educational materials, but SCASL has not been arguing otherwise (and in its follow-up letter to Weaver, it reaffirmed the importance of parent involvement and provided examples of the organization’s long history of supporting it). Reviewing educational materials is not the same thing as challenging books that simply appear on a list provided by an out-of-state organization3. And it doesn’t mean that just because you review those materials, they should be automatically removed from circulation pending an indefinite review process, as many district policies currently require. As Weaver should know by now, there are already procedures in place for parents to flag books and materials with libraries and school districts so that their own children may not access them; what SCASL is implicitly criticizing, instead, is the practice of handing outsized political power to a very small number of parents, who can then make book availability decisions for every student in the district.
The “advocacy toolkit” referenced in Weaver’s letter contains neither the word “censorship” nor the word “ban”. But the ALA website does, on a separate page, demonstrate how silly it is to act as if its position against censorship is somehow novel:
ALA, established in 1876, has a longstanding commitment to defend intellectual freedom in libraries. Even before the formal adoption of the Library Bill of Rights in 1939, ALA has provided support, guidance, and resources to librarians faced with censorship. Since 1990, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has maintained a database on challenged materials. ALA gathers information from media reports and individual reports submitted from the form below.
And it’s hard to say what (if anything) Weaver means when she cites the testimony before the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Taskforce, but she may be referencing this document, included as a link in the taskforce report, which includes testimony from librarians who have faced harassment on the job. Here is one sample of testimony from that document:
There was a small group of citizens (who didn't have children in the school system) who had been attending meetings in order to target books they didn't like and to call for more community oversight in the materials used and subjects taught in the schools. Even though it was against our School Board Policy, this group was allowed to call out myself and my colleague, as well as our Principal, by name. We were accused of putting pornography on our shelves. The Board meeting was live-streamed and put up on the District website. Our names were not removed until two days later when I complained that our safety was at risk by leaving this meeting up with our names in it. After this board meeting, I was concerned that these community members might call me or email me (both at work and at home) or find out where I live and show up at my house.
Similar testimony in the document describes librarians being called “groomers” without cause, doxxed, and vilified on social media. At least one librarian found their own children involved in the public controversy and targeted at school. Another librarian stated that SC senator Josh Kimbrell (who was named in multiple pieces of testimony as inciting controversy around books and libraries) and SC representative Steven Long claimed on social media that they had provided “pornography” to children.
There’s a reason, of course, for SCASL to have provided this testimony to the taskforce: attacks from politicians and community members are a driver in our state’s inability to fully staff our classrooms and libraries. Attacking a professional organization for trying to bring this to the attention of lawmakers and others on the taskforce is simply egregious.
Nor is this problem confined to South Carolina: Oklahoma Superintendent of Instruction Ryan Walters, has been accused of helping to incite at least six bomb threats against an Oklahoma school district after sharing a video, from the anti-LGBTQ+ troll account Libs of TikTok, which used a librarian’s gently satirical video out of context to suggest a campaign to “indoctrinate” children with “woke ideology”4. Libs of TikTok also shared the librarian’s identifying information in the post retweeted by Walters, which likely contributed to the bomb threats. The video in question was actually drawing attention to the very real problems districts across the country are facing in recruiting and retaining educators. The caption on the original video: “My radical liberal agenda is teaching kids to love books and be kind hbu?? I think im going to make one of these every year until i die or end my teaching era”.
Of course, if Weaver wasn’t reading the taskforce report just for weak reasons to battle public school librarians and the organization which provides their professional development, she (and by extension other heads of state education departments) might have found some ways to actually address those recruitment and retention problems. For school librarians, the report— mandated by state budget proviso, and created by a broad, bipartisan group of elected officials and a few current professional educators— had these clear and succinct recommendations:
Consistent with guidance from the State Board of Education, local district boards of education should review, revise, and implement clear, consistent, and fair policies and procedures for the review and purchase of materials in school libraries. Whenever possible, districts should provide for trained library assistants to aide in the key instructional role of the school library. Library assistants’ compensation should be budgeted as support staff and not be placed as a burden upon the library budget. (emphasis mine)
But perhaps more important still was this recommendation, which Weaver would do well to heed (if, in fact, she does care about recruiting and retaining public educators):
Recruitment of educators suffers from negative discourse surrounding the field of public education. Across three public listening sessions, the issue of respect was a consistent thread in a majority of comments. Respect was cited as the primary issue for teachers who expressed concerns about remaining in the profession; while this is a recruitment issue, it also directly impacts the ability to retain veteran educators. Educators reported feeling a lack of respect from a variety of sources. This testimony reinforces data received by the task force from multiple agencies: respecting educators is not solely a local issue. A state-wide campaign to elevate and promote public education can elevate the discourse in the state of South Carolina and make it a destination state for current and future educators. (emphasis mine)
When we elect people more interested in fighting a culture war than in governing or creating policy, we get counterproductive, uninformed public policy, and a lot of empty (and sometimes dangerous) rhetoric. Weaver, and her counterparts in other states, like Oklahoma’s Ryan Walters, are so disinterested in learning about real policy or in doing anything to help public schools— something which would only undermine their favored narratives supporting “school choice” (vouchers) and demonizing educators (to support “school choice”)— that they recycle hack talking points from Moms for Liberty, Freedom Caucus, and other ironically-named groups bent on promoting their favored ideologies through state-funded programs, until those state-funded programs begin to collapse and they can shift even more funds to private “alternative” education.
As we move toward the next election cycle, it’s crucial to get involved in educating the public about the consequences of electing people who have nothing more than this to offer, and it’s crucial to get involved early, since in heavily gerrymandered states like South Carolina the primary is often where the election is essentially decided.
South Carolina librarians are under attack. Please consider showing your support by signing this petition from SC ACLU in support of academic freedom. You can find out about more ways to help at SCASL.net, on the SCEA website, and by following Freedom to Read.
This kind of statement would have been rightly characterized as nakedly homophobic by many on the right a few years ago, and it should be noted that the SC Freedom Caucus has been extremely divisive in SC politics, with many Republicans— particularly in the House— delivering harsh criticism of the group’s positions and tactics.
According to the report itself, “A total of 50 people testified. Major themes included how a perceived lack of respect for teachers makes both teaching and supporting a productive and safe learning environment more difficult; the impact of large class sizes and serving students with behavioral disabilities on classroom climate; the impact of large caseloads on special education teachers, school counselors, and speech language professionals; and the impact of parental leave policies on teacher retention.”
According to an analysis by the Washington Post (cited in the Harvard Gazette), 11 people nationwide have been responsible for about 60% of all book challenges. National and local polls have suggested that most parents don’t support banning concepts (like “CRT”) and texts that groups like the Freedom Caucus and Moms for Liberty want to ban.
Walters is okay with some kinds of indoctrination: he just enthusiastically announced the Oklahoma Department of Education is partnering with rightwing propaganda outlet PragerU for its approved history materials.