EveryLibrary and Texas Freedom to Read Project Candidate Survey

EveryLibrary and Texas Freedom to Read Project team up to survey school board candidates views on censorship and libraries

For the first time, Texas Freedom to Read Project has paired with EveryLibrary to survey Texas school board candidates about their positions on school book bans, the freedom to read, and the value of libraries and public schools in Texas. Surveys were sent to candidates for the May elections in the 150 largest school districts in Texas, as well as State Board of Education candidates. 60 replied; 22 filled out the survey completely. 

The survey reveals some deep divisions in the ways Texans approach restrictions on instructional materials and library books. But it also reflects a general consensus about the importance of libraries and librarians, a recognition that parental rights do not extend to limiting choices for all students, and a wariness towards certain methods and approaches to removing books from Texas schools. 

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A state divided

Unsurprisingly, questions about censorship, book bans, and the roles of libraries elicited a wide range of responses from candidates. Some of the most polarizing questions were those relating to questions about the value of academic freedom, student choice in reading texts, and whether or not students have a right to read freely. Respondents were asked whether they “strongly agree,” “agree,” “disagree,” or “strongly disagree” with the following statement (respondents could also choose “neutral”): 

“School libraries are places of voluntary inquiry and not required reading for students. School libraries should, therefore, have books and materials with a multitude of viewpoints and ideas. Removing books from library shelves because of disagreement with or disapproval of ideas or viewpoints within the books is wrong and violates the First Amendment rights of students.”

While 50% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with that statement, 6 of the 7 respondents who rejected the statement strongly disagreed (4 respondents chose “neutral”). Many of those same candidates also disagreed with the statement, “There is value in allowing students to choose their own age-relevant reading materials.”

Candidates were also divided about the types of books that should be available to students at different ages. Although 68% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “School board policies should reflect the full diversity of the values of all community members who reside within a district,” 50% said that age-relevant books with LGBTQ characters should either never (23%) be available to students or only available to high school students (27%). And only half of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “school libraries with robust and diverse collection that include age relevant books that address topics like race, social justice, sexual assault, sexual education, consent, LGBTQ+ issues, etc., are important to serving and meeting the needs of our students.” 

This divide is philosophical, not geographical. Candidates in rural, urban, and suburban districts and from all different parts of the state supported open academic inquiry and inclusive libraries. Some of the strongest anti-censorship responses came from Benjamin Esquivel, in Harlingen Consolidated ISD, and Lan Carter and Joy Perez in Killeen, a military town in Central Texas. The most strident pro-censorship responses came from candidates in suburban districts like Frisco, in the Dallas area, Keller, near Fort Worth, and Eanes, near Austin. 

Clearly, there are two competing worldviews among Texas school board candidates when it comes to questions about censorship and book availability: some seem to deeply value students’ freedom to read, while others don’t recognize that freedom at all. And though it could be tempting to see these worldviews as incompatible, the survey actually reveals common ground that can be used to craft messages that will help bridge those divides.

The Mainstream and the Fringe

In fact, there were large areas of agreement on a number of survey questions. Support for librarians, for example, was the survey’s least controversial proposition. No respondents disagreed with the statement, “School librarians are valuable and vital and contribute to the overall educational well-being of students in my district,” though one candidate, Andy Rokovich of Victoria ISD, was neutral. 73% strongly agreed. That’s the closest any question came to unanimity. Not far behind was the statement, “I trust librarians are looking out for the best interest of students and I generally trust them to oversee and curate school library collections in my district.” Only three candidates (14%) disagreed with that, with four (18%) remaining neutral.

That’s important information given recent attempts to demonize librarians. At a recent school board meeting in Fort Bend ISD, for example, a pastor visiting from out of state decried district librarians as “wicked and woke leftists” and argued that any employees who purchased certain books should be fired. It’s encouraging to see that such thinking can be described as extreme among the respondents to this survey.

Candidates also generally supported increased funding for public schools and opposed vouchers. 91% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “the state legislature needs to increase public education basic allotment funding to catch up to inflation.” And 82% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “I support state funded voucher programs (Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs), public school funds given to families to pay for or subsidize private school tuition, etc.).” While it might seem intuitive that candidates for public school boards would oppose vouchers, book censorship efforts have often been connected to political pushes for “school choice” and candidates who support censorship have been funded by pro-school-choice candidates.

Agreement on Some Freedom to Read Questions

Respondents’ answers to some questions on specific issues on censorship were even more encouraging. 86% agreed or strongly agreed that district book challenges processes should be open only to “parents, community members residing within a district, and verified stakeholders of the district” (14% were neutral; none disagreed). That’s great to see, since book removals in several Texas districts have been driven by demands from extremist groups with no direct connection to the district’s schools. In Fort Worth ISD, for example, parents have responded to the influence Citizens Defending Freedom has exerted on the district’s libraries by proposing new policies that would favor participation in board meetings by actual district stakeholders; this survey suggests that many board candidates would be open to such an approach.

And 77% agreed or strongly agreed that “a parent's right to restrict or remove access to a book or other instructional resource extends only to their own child, and not anyone else's child.” (18% disagreed; 1 respondent was neutral).

Finally, 68% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that when districts evaluate materials for appropriateness, they should take into account the work “as a whole and in context rather than reducing books to rubrics or checklists” (18% disagreed or strongly disagreed; 14% were neutral). That’s incredibly heartening in a moment when districts are removing requirements that works be evaluated as a whole, and it stands as a rebuke to efforts to introduce simple rubrics that allow districts to more easily remove books from school shelves. 

Messages That Work

The data from Every Library / Texas Freedom to Read Project’s survey shows that advocates for the freedom to read have work to do in persuading the people running for school board positions that students’ rights matter, that students benefit from freely choosing age-relevant reading material, and that reflecting the full diversity of a community includes allowing access to books that deal with race, social justice, sexual assault, sexual education, consent, and LGBTQ+ issues.

Fortunately, the survey also points to shared values from which we can make that case. Those include the right of parents to direct their own children’s education, the importance of local control, and the understanding that books can be misleadingly presented when passages are taken out of context. 

Most importantly, the survey shows that support for and trust in libraries and librarians is a mainstream position—and that’s encouraging, because libraries are inherently spaces of exploration and encounter.

Candidates in their Own Words

The survey asked candidates to share their thoughts “on the recent tide of book challenges, book removals, and censorship in Texas libraries and Texas schools.” Here were some of their responses:

“I don’t consider removing inappropriate books censorship or book banning. In fact, many of the books, if read aloud in public would cause people to be arrested. The idea that these materials are ‘inclusive’ is absurd and suggests that kids who are gay NEED hypersexual material and they crave it so they therefore deserve it. The purpose of school is academics and there is nothing academic about books that are sexually explicit in nature. Furthermore, I said neutral on trusting librarians because it depends on the librarian.while I agree with kids being able to choose their material they should not have access to material that is sexually explicit. There is a reason we have movie ratings and no one considers that censorship, a first amendment rights violation or movie banning.” -Melanie Barrios-Jones (Frisco ISD, Place 7)

“I believe school libraries should align with the Texas State Libraries Archive Commission standards.” -DaLana Barsanti (Keller ISD, Place 7)

“Banning books in most cases robs knowledge from those searching for answers.” -Benjamin Esquivel (Harlingen Consolidated ISD, Place 4)

“My christian values are the foundation for which I make many decisions. I do not believe that lgbtq information is a appropriate for school aged children. At the earliest case I could accept this would be High school, possibly 7th grade at earliest. I do not  believe in basing education on the smallest percentage of people and that is what allowing lgtbq does.” -Gary Vineyard (Midlothian ISD, Place 2)

“I believe allowed (controversial) books in libraries should be determined by the age of the students.” -Courtney Beach Biasatti (Comal ISD, Place 2)

“It doesn’t feel local! Nobody in my position wants to harm kids, it’s about providing equal opportunities for all. Just because you have an opinion, doesn’t mean it is right.” -Tim Hennessee (Comal ISD, Place 1)

“I do not support the overreach of HB900 or the parent movement to get books banned or removed from libraries. If a parent takes issue with a specific title because it is offensive to them, that parent can request the title to be unavailable for THEIR child. That parent does not get to determine what is available to ALL students. School librarians are educators, and should be trusted to curate collections that meets the needs of their schools. School libraries should provide a wide selection of books that reflect the diverse voices, identities, and experiences of their communities.” -Terri Purdy (Dripping Springs ISD)

“These books did not exist in school libraries until 10 years ago. These questions are worded as gotcha questions.” -Andy Rokovich (Victoria ISD, District 2)

“Censorship by individuals or small groups of parents or legislators who have a political agenda should not be allowed to proliferate. Recent attempts to prohibit library materials based on disagreement with the basic underlying theme of a book is detrimental to the learning process, and counter productive in achieving quality educational goals.” -Ray Chávez (Hays Consolidated ISD, District 3)

“I disagree with any government entity removing books from libraries or determining what is fit or not fit for all children.” -Lan Carter (Killeen ISD, Place 3)

“Books should be used as an educational tool, not to promote social injustice.  Taxpayer money should not be used to fund woke agendas. As a trustee my decisions will revolve around my faith and family values.  I am glad that I have an influence in policy.” -Eduardo Gonzalez (Midlothian ISD, Place 3)

“There definitely were some books that did not belong in the school libraries.  Hopefully they have been removed, and we now have new laws and policies to make sure that they stay out of the libraries.  But I believe that it has gone a little too far.  There is so much added pressure on librarians now.  Ideology should not be a reason to remove a book, especially at the secondary level.” -Dawn Champagne (Katy ISD, Position 7)

“Book challenges are an attack on democracy. Students need age-appropriate access to diverse topics to become empathetic and informed citizens.” -Carrie Bruce (Mesquite ISD, Place 7)

“It’s disheartening that librarians aren’t being treated like professionals by school boards who decide what gets to be in the library. Parents have choice in what their own child reads and checks out. A wide variety of age-appropriate books that are about difficult topics is important as schools serve ALL kids.” -Matthew Herzberg (Mansfield ISD, Place 1)

“Many of the books on the banned book list are based on lived life experiences. When you take away the opportunity for our youth to read about and learn about others lived experiences you take away the opportunity to teach them empathy, compassion and the ability to become supporters and allies. You also take away from validating marginalized communities.” -Joy Perez (Killeen ISD, Place 7)

“The conversation is one of many that falls on that continuum between freedom and protection, or people's interpretation of those ideas in this context. I have not seen or heard Dallas ISD in the news cycle on this topic, perhaps in part because of the policy that has been in place prior to the recent tide (librarians order from a list of pre-approved vendors with a specific educational purpose or goal in mind, and a supervising role double checks the order) or perhaps from Dallas being more diverse than other communities 'in the news'. The DISD policy has a well-defined process for someone to contest a title, but negligible actual contests to titles. For this reason, my response to question #1 is "Disagree" (I worry about the types of books and materials...) because the librarians in DISD are already selecting age-appropriate books and materials with specific educational goals in mind. They are professionals, they care deeply for our students, and have my full support in the job they are doing.” -Chris Roberts (Dallas ISD, District 1)

school board book bans survey EveryLibrary