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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Another chapter in book ban political debate

The Columbian
Published: March 12, 2024, 6:03am

The close of the 2024 legislative session in Olympia is unlikely to be the last we will hear about bills related to education. By working to promote inclusion and protect academic integrity, the Democratic-led Legislature has invited the ire of conservatives throughout Washington.

Engrossed Substitute House Bill 2331, introduced by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, will prohibit school boards from banning books or materials on the basis that they include the contributions of people from a protected class.

“When kids see themselves, their families, and their experiences represented in the books they read, they get excited about reading and learning. …” Stonier said. “Banning books is a political weapon used by dictators. Making sure our kids have a diverse library to choose from that represents the diversity of the communities across our state is how we raise the next generation of informed, thoughtful citizens –—not dictators.”

The bill, which has been sent to Gov. Jay Inslee, instructs school boards and superintendents to reassess current policies or adopt new guidelines to make sure materials are reviewed in accordance with state anti-discrimination laws.

Meanwhile, Engrossed Senate Bill 5462 requires the inclusion of histories and contributions of LGBTQ people, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans and people of varying religions and backgrounds.

Republicans opposed the bills, as did some school boards. The Kennewick School District, for example, passed a resolution declaring that the legislation was promoted by “activist state commissions pushing sexual agendas and politics and subverting the vote of the local community.”

Several other education-related measures also were approved. They include an update to state financial contributions for school construction and an increase in funding for special education.

Both changes are necessary and directly address concerns of administrators throughout the state. But neither is likely to become election-year fodder like the bills involving curricula and library materials. In that regard, Washington joins several other states where political divides are represented in school libraries.

PEN America, a nonprofit that works to protect free expression through literature, recorded 3,362 book bans in U.S. public school classrooms and libraries during the 2022-23 school year. The organization writes: “Authors whose books are targeted are most frequently female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals.”

In 2023, the Florida Legislature drew national attention by passing a law requiring that books considered pornographic, harmful to minors or depicting sexual activity be pulled from shelves. Taken to their extreme, such vague definitions would have to include the Bible (read Ezekial 23:20 if you have any doubts).

Indeed, school materials should reflect local social norms. But too often, book bans reflect attempts to silence, distort and twist historical narratives and diverse perspectives. Such actions poorly serve students and violate a basic premises of education — teaching them how to think for themselves.

Equally important, such efforts too often reflect the activism of a small portion of the population that desires to determine what others can and cannot read. National polls find that two-thirds of Americans oppose book bans by school boards or legislatures.

Whether or not those facts require action by the Legislature to prohibit book bans is debatable. But that debate is likely to play a role in elections this fall.