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Texas governor decries school library books with 'pornographic or obscene material'

Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks during a Houston Region Business Coalition's meeting on October 27, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Days later, he wrote a letter to the state's association of school boards decrying 'pornographic' content in school library books.
Brandon Bell
Getty Images
Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks during a Houston Region Business Coalition's meeting on October 27, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Days later, he wrote a letter to the state's association of school boards decrying 'pornographic' content in school library books.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is asking the state's association of school boards to "ensure no child is exposed to pornography or other inappropriate content in a Texas public school," in the latest Republican attempt to dictate what can and can't be taught in classrooms.

In a Monday letter to the executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, Abbott said that parents have the right to shield their children from obscene content in schools and that public schools shouldn't have "pornographic or obscene material." He asked the organization to determine the extent to which such material exists — and remove it.

"A growing number of parents of Texas students are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries that are extremely inappropriate in the public education system," he wrote. "The most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance that have no place in the Texas public education system."

The letter doesn't provide any specific examples of such content.

Texas school libraries are governed by their independent districts as well as by standards established and approved by the state, as Abbott noted in the letter. While classroom textbooks are reviewed and adopted by the state's board of education, library books are reviewed at the district level.

"Collectively, your organization's members have an obligation to determine the extent to which such materials exist or are used in our schools and to remove any such content," Abbott wrote. "You must also ensure transparency about the materials being taught in the classroom and offered in school libraries."

The school boards association has not responded publicly to the letter.

But a spokesperson told NPR over email that the group was "confused" about why it had been the recipient, given that it "has no regulatory authority over school districts and does not set the standards for instructional materials, including library books."

"The role of a school board primarily includes establishing a strategic plan for the district, adopting policies in public meetings, approving the district's budget, and selecting and evaluating a superintendent," the spokesperson added. "In most school districts, the review and selection of individual library materials traditionally has been an administrative responsibility managed by professional district staff."

The letter comes as several Republican state lawmakers have demanded inquiries into school library books that they deem inappropriate.

Other state officials want to investigate school districts' library books

Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, who chairs the Texas House's General Investigating Committee — and is also a candidate for attorney general — wrote a letter to the Texas Education Agency's deputy commissioner of school programs and school superintendents, announcing an inquiry into the books districts offer.

Krause attached a 16-page list of roughly 850 book titles, most of which appear to be related to gender identity, sexuality, race and sexual health. They were published between the 1960s and this year, and several have won awards. An analysisfrom The Dallas Morning News found that "of the first 100 titles listed, 97 were written by women, people of color or LGBTQ authors."

He asked district leaders to tell him how many copies of these books they have and at which campus locations, as well as how much the district spent on them.

Krause also asked school leaders to identify and provide the same information for other books they may have that address the following topics:

"Human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

And late last week, state Rep. Jeff Cason called on Texas' attorney general to investigate "sexually explicit material in public schools."

He singled out one particular book, Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, a nonbinary, queer author and illustrator. (The book has been challenged or denounced in multiple states, an experience Kobabe described in a recent Washington Postop-ed.) One district has since removed it from a high school library.

Cason urged the attorney general to launch a statewide investigation into that and other books that may "violate the Penal Code in relation to pornography, child pornography and decency laws, as well as the legal ramifications to school districts that approved of these types of books."

The culture war isn't contained to Texas

Of course, there's a much larger battle brewing in and beyond Texas about how schools can treat sensitive but important subjects.

Texas lawmakers passed two laws this year restricting how teachers can talk about race in school.

More broadly, the highly politicized debate over critical race theory is now playing out in many states — including in Virginia, where Toni Morrison's Beloved recently came to embody the education issues at stake in Monday's gubernatorial election.

This story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.