Wyoming’s top public education official was one of four guests at a U.S. House committee hearing in Washington, D.C. Thursday morning, on protecting children from sexually graphic books in public spaces.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder cautioned the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, saying that if public schools do not refocus on education fundamentals instead of controversial sexual themes, parents will lose faith in public education altogether.
“I am passionate about public education as one of the most important tools for lifting people out of poverty and fulfilling the American dream,” said Degenfelder, adding that schools should equip students for jobs and to be good Americans. “This purpose becomes compromised when our parents lose trust and confidence in our public schools.”
Degenfelder’s testimony rebutted in part the opening remarks of ranking member Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, who theorized that Republican politicians who rail about certain books in school libraries are staging an effort to undermine faith in public education so they can fund private-school voucher programs instead.
Headed For Homeschool
Degenfelder continued, saying she spoke with parents across Wyoming while she campaigned in 2022.
Resoundingly, parents’ top concerns were sexually graphic materials in schools, she said. One parent, a mother whose teenage daughter approached her with a schoolbook that made the daughter uncomfortable, was appalled to find sexually graphic acts depicted in the book.
“A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, this mother was not only triggered by the book, but also fearful that other minors reading this book may become conditioned to the material and not speak up if victims themselves,” she said.
When other students joined the girl in dissent against the book, “the teacher became their bully, asking the child what the big deal was; why she was pushing this,” Degenfelder said.
She said this clash has pushed the girl to seek virtual schooling options and her mother to homeschool the girl’s younger siblings.
“We have many incredible teachers and librarians” generally, Degenfelder added. “But there are books available, paid for by taxpayer dollars, with graphic depictions of sexual acts that are made available to minor children under the age of sexual consent … a complete misuse of taxpayer dollars.”
Degenfelder characterized sexually graphic books as divisive and a distraction from the fundamentals schools must teach. She implicated them as a culprit in the nationally decreasing National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores.
What To Do?
Degenfelder did not propose a federal law to remedy the issue.
Rather, she urged local school boards and parents to take charge.
“It certainly should not be left up to the federal government,” she said.
That was one area where Degenfelder and Bonamici agreed, Bonamici said.
But, Degenfelder added, her research has shown that many Wyoming school districts don’t have adequate policies in place to address sexually graphic books, so her office has deployed statewide think tanks to brainstorm solutions and offer guidance.
About ‘Book Banning’
Of the four guests the committee hosted, three wanted to limit sexually graphic content in schools, and one opposed such limitations.
Dr. Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education Programs for PEN America, characterized restrictions on school libraries and books as authoritarian “book banning” promoted by a minority of activists and parents.
“We face an alarming attack on free expression,” said Friedman. “Some politicians have launched a campaign to exert ideological control over public education, unprecedented in its scope, scale and size.”
PEN America launched an effort in 2021 to track “book bans,” Friedman continued, with a broad guiding principle in its data: If a student’s access to a book is interrupted or impeded, that constitutes a ban.
“In our society, the loss of First Amendment rights, even minimally, is injurious,” he said.
PEN America catalogued 2,532 instances of individual books being banned in the 2021-2022 school year and 3,362 in the following school year.
Like Bonamici, Friedman called the war on certain books a campaign to disrupt public education.
The effort is endangering students, Friedman said.
“We see targeted, organized and replicated efforts to ban books,” he said, adding they are “efforts to take away the very books that many students, families and educators say they want to access; books they say save lives.”
‘Twisted Abuse Of The English Language’
Another guest, Max Eden, research fellow for the American Enterprise Institute, locked horns with Friedman.
He cast Friedman’s argument as hyperbolic and disingenuous, saying that the nation’s most-challenged book, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, is still available at Amazon.com and major booksellers and is therefore not banned.
“Citizens who hear the word ‘book ban’ can be forgiven for being alarmed,” began Eden. “Unfortunately, their alarm is not rooted in reality, but rather in the twisted abuse of the English language. In common usage, banned means ‘made unavailable.’”
By that logic, Eden continued, every book that has ever been excluded from a school library – and therefore every book in the world – is banned.
Of the 2,532 books PEN America deemed “banned” in 2022, three-quarters of them were actually returned to or remained in the school libraries where the issues originated, Eden said, citing his work with two researches from the Heritage Foundation.
In Court Though
Goaded by Bonamici, who asked for clarification, Friedman countered, saying book restrictions are tantamount to banning, and U.S. courts are on his side.
“Our understanding of ‘banning’… is tied very tightly to clear and undisputed jurisprudence, (decisions which) honestly, haven’t been up for debate in half a century,” said Friedman.
Efforts to get certain books out of school libraries have skyrocketed in the past three years, he added, blaming an internet-fueled frenzy, and parents who will download online lists of presumably troubling books then go to war against them without having read them.
Jesse Andrews, Again
Eden lambasted “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews, which was challenged in a Georgia school district. In it, two boy characters discuss oral sex in crass terms, and one of them says he hasn’t been taught to perform it, except on an anus.
“If you’re a school board member who thinks school libraries maybe don’t need reference to oral sex being performed on anuses, you’ll be investigated by the Biden Department of Education,” said Eden. “If you’re a mom who believes maybe reference to oral sex and anuses is inappropriate for children in a school library, you may be accused of being basically akin to a Nazi, by an organization like PEN America. Why is (that)?”
Andrews’ name has surfaced in Wyoming discussions on graphic books as well. Rock Springs parents in August voiced concerns about his other book, “The Haters,” being in their high school library, due to its numerous passages about sex and drug-related scenarios.
Degenfelder Vs. Biden
Delegates and speakers referenced President Joe Biden and his federal Department of Education’s role in this issue multiple times during the hearing.
That’s because Biden announced in June, and fulfilled in September, the appointment of a book ban coordinator to warn schools that “book bans can violate federal civil rights laws if they create a hostile environment for students,” NPR reported.
Subcommittee Chair Rep. Aaron Bean, R-Florida, said part of the hearing’s purpose was to confront Biden’s move as overreach.
Bean highlighted Wyoming’s approach as a solution during his closing remarks.
“Wyoming should be one of our leaders,” said Bean. “I believe local control is one of the answers. The Biden administration’s book-banning czar is a real threat. Hopefully, we’ll still allow local control for the school boards.”
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.