‘Scary’: public-school textbooks the latest target as US book bans intensify

<span>The decision by the the Cypress Fairbanks independent school district was condemned by the Texas Freedom to Read Project.</span><span>Photograph: Ekaterina Budinovskaya/Getty Images</span>
The decision by the the Cypress Fairbanks independent school district was condemned by the Texas Freedom to Read Project.Photograph: Ekaterina Budinovskaya/Getty Images

The wave of book bans sweeping the US, typically reserved for works of fiction deemed controversial, has hit textbooks used in public schools, marking the next step in Republicans’ war on education.

The board of trustees for the Cypress Fairbanks independent school district in Houston voted 6-1 earlier this month to redact certain chapters in science textbooks, including those about vaccines, human growth, diversity, and climate change.

The motion to remove the chapters was made by the board’s vice-president Natalie Blasingame and almost unanimously supported.

Blasingame, who has served on the board since 2021, did not give a specific explanation for the decision, but said the subjects go beyond what the state requires to teach and creates “a perception that humans are bad”.

Last year, the Republican-controlled state board approved textbooks for the schools’ science curriculums, rejecting several books on climate, so the local school district’s censorship of these textbooks is even more restrictive.

Education experts say the move could have far-reaching consequences, prompting similar decisions to omit information in other subjects, and public school districts across the country.

The board’s decision drew the ire of local parents and education groups.

Brian Henry, a local parent and founder of the non-partisan group Cypress Families for Public Schools, said he was concerned about the precedent this decision sets.

“Will trustees at the local school board level be able to just delete chapters about civil rights because they just mentioned the history of same-sex marriage?” Henry, 37, said. “It’s really kind of alarming what this could mean for ideological influence and control over what is taught in schools.”

Henry describes Cypress, a sprawling suburb of Houston with a population of nearly 200,000, as an increasingly diverse community with a loud minority of political extremists.

“A lot of Republicans in the Cy-Fair area, who are very conservative but are pro public-education, are having to now grapple with the fact that [the] governor, state representatives – they’re really not pro public–education,” he said. “And so people are struggling with how to reconcile that, because they don’t want to vote for Democrats.”

Henry added this “level of oversight, micromanagement and interference” is “scary.”

The Texas Freedom to Read Project, an organization that fights book bans, swiftly condemned the decision.

“To ban entire chapters of textbooks and withhold that information from students is not only unconstitutional, but it is taking away their access to real-life ideas that exist in this world,” said Laney Hawes, co-founder of the group.

“Access to a diverse and wide range of information is what prepares students to navigate this world successfully. When we ban books and limit students ability to access ideas, we are closing doors to their futures.”

Kasey Meehan of PEN America, the national non-profit organization committed to free expression, said school board members – who are often publicly elected and do not necessarily have an education in background – are increasingly having an outsized influence on the instruction being delivered to students.

“A narrow ideological viewpoint is reshaping student education for students across our public school system,” Meehan told the Guardian. “I think what we’re seeing is a really targeted campaign to increasingly burden and cause confusion and chaos amongst our public school system, in a way that begins to strain and dismantle it.”

PEN America found 3,362 instances of individual books banned in public K–12 schools for the 2022-23 academic year – a 33% increase from last year, with Florida and Texas leading the way. These books mostly include novels with themes of race or sexuality, not core academic material.

Meehan said the censorships of textbooks is “a further escalation of this movement”.

“Texas is no stranger to book bans or censoring other educational content areas or materials. The idea that we’re redacting chapters from state-approved textbooks is almost unheard of. It’s so outlandish,” Meehan said.

Book bans have become a core element of platforms of well funded far-right politicians, who have tried to win a larger presence on school boards across the US.

“I’m almost worried about a concerning trend where far-right Republican candidates are replacing moderate Republicans on school boards, not because citizens believe they are better suited for the job, but because rightwing billionaires and Pacs are starting to pour money into these local elections,” said David DeMatthews, an education professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who previously worked as a public school teacher and district administrator.

“The scary truth in Texas is now even local school boards in smaller- and medium-sized districts have outside money pouring in to shape local decisions. This is undermining our democracy.”

DeMatthews said the best way to combat book bans and censorship “is to educate voters about what is happening. Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, no Texan wants to have their local elections bought by billionaires or Pacs.”

He added: “I also think more parents and citizens should talk to students and teachers, visit schools, and they will quickly see that a lot of the concerns about book content is fabricated. Texas schools are not teaching problematic content and curriculum, but this is sometimes suggested on cable news and social media.”

The school district did not respond to a request for comment.