Book czar appointed by US Education Department amid bans

Book czar appointed by US Education Department amid bans

by Suswati Basu
1 comment

In a bold move aimed at addressing the escalating challenges posed by the banning of books in American schools, the US Department of Education has appointed a new official, Matt Nosanchuk, to oversee its response to content-related controversies. As book bans continue to make headlines across the country, this appointment, often dubbed a “book czar,” is a significant step toward ensuring students’ freedom to read.

Nadine Farid Johnson, Washington director of PEN America, an organisation at the forefront of documenting and defending against the alarming rise of school book bans nationwide, expressed her optimism about this appointment: “Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical. We welcome the appointment of Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Nosanchuk and we look forward to seeing continued efforts by the Department of Education to ensure students’ freedom to read.”

“Book removals and restrictions continue apace across the country, as the tactics to silence certain voices and identities are sharpened.”

Nadine Farid Johnson, PEN America Washington director

Who is Matt Nosanchuk?

Nosanchuk, a former official from the Obama administration and a leader in the nonprofit sector with a strong focus on advocating for the Jewish and LGBTQ+ communities, assumed his role as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department’s Office for Civil Rights on Monday. In his new capacity, Nosanchuk will not only oversee the administration’s response to school content challenges but will also take action if it is determined that the removal of certain materials violates students’ civil rights.

The escalating battle over banned books

The issue of book banning has been a hot topic recently, with Texas, Florida, and Missouri leading the charge in terms of the highest number of banned books. This trend has raised concerns about limiting students’ access to literary works and has even led to legal action. For instance, PEN America is currently suing Escambia County, Florida, over its book bans.

Read: Florida school board: toss Penguin Random House book ban lawsuit

The impact of book bans has been disproportionately felt by Black and LGBTQ+ authors and books that discuss race, racism, and LGBTQ+ identities. In the last year and a half, PEN America has documented over 4,000 instances of book bans, a wave of censorship that hasn’t been witnessed in decades.

Matt Nosanchuk: the “book czar” tackling content challenges

The US Department of Education’s decision to appoint a “book czar” to monitor these escalating content challenges is expected to spark further debates over who should have the authority to restrict students’ access to library materials.

Explaining the rationale behind this move, a department official stated, “Across the country, communities are seeing a rise in efforts to ban books — efforts that are often designed to empty libraries and classrooms of literature about LGBTQ people, people of colour, people of faith, key historical events, and more. These efforts are a threat to students’ rights and freedoms.”

Conservative groups have been vocal in their push to remove books they deem inappropriate for students, and GOP leaders have taken action against districts that include books with sexual content or discuss historical racism in their curricula. Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, criticised the Department of Education’s decision, saying, “Put succinctly: Books aren’t being banned, and it’s good that they are.”

Read: Book bans and literary censorship: how US is following in footsteps of Russia

PEN America’s advocacy efforts have revealed that almost 1,500 instances of book bans affected 874 unique titles during the last school year. While some parents argue that these books are too advanced or graphic for younger readers, civil rights officials contend that removing a book merely because it includes LGBTQ+ characters or discusses racial violence constitutes discrimination.

In a groundbreaking resolution in May, the department found that a Georgia district may have created a “hostile environment” when it withdrew several books featuring LGBTQ+ and Black characters following parent complaints. As part of the resolution, Forsyth County Schools were required to notify students of their library book review process and survey middle and high school students about harassment based on race or sex and whether they feel comfortable reporting it.

Amidst this contentious debate, some parent leaders are welcoming the appointment of Nosanchuk. Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, remarked, “Leadership and energy on this has been a long time coming. We hope to see real action and resources for children, parents, and families who have been caught in the crossfire of this hate-filled political campaign for far too long.”

The ongoing debate: federal intervention vs. local autonomy

However, some states have taken matters into their own hands. Florida, for instance, passed a law requiring districts to remove books that contain “sexual conduct” if the material is determined to be inappropriate. Those who disagree with a district’s decision to retain a book can request a review by a special magistrate, which has raised concerns about the state’s influence on classroom materials.

In Oklahoma, officials adopted a rule allowing the downgrading of a district’s accreditation if it contains books with “sexualized content” that an average person might find unfit for students. This rule followed state Superintendent Ryan Walters’s claims that some districts’ libraries included books such as “Gender Queer” and “Flamer” with graphic illustrations of sex. In several cases, these books had already been removed.

Laura Gao talks about her book being challenged in multiple states as book czar appointed
Read: Laura Gao on Messy Roots book ban and anti-LGBTQ sentiment

Advocates defending the rights of parents to restrict their children’s access to explicit material argue that they have been unfairly criticised. Nicki Neily, president, and founder of Parents Defending Education, testified in a Congressional hearing, saying, “When people ask questions, they’re crucified. Pretending that objections to minors accessing explicit sexual content is a threat to liberty and literature is a straw man and a distraction from real concerns about the quality of children’s education and whether students are safe in school.”

While the appointment of Nosanchuk is seen as a positive step by many advocates, it is also likely to stir debates about the role of the federal government in local school board matters. Some argue that the federal government should stay out of these decisions, while others believe that federal intervention could provide much-needed support to districts grappling with the complexities of book bans.

Amid this ongoing controversy, one thing remains clear: the battle over what students should be allowed to read in schools is far from over, and the appointment of Nosanchuk as book czar is just the latest development in this contentious struggle for the freedom to read.

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1 comment

School book bans: alarming rise as Florida takes lead - How To Be Books September 23, 2023 - 11:51 am

[…] Read: Book czar appointed by US Education Department amid bans […]


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