Report Card: How Much Education Censorship Is Too Much?

December 9, 2014

Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.

— Mark Twain

Today, this quote might read, “Don’t let school boards interfere with your education.”

In Arizona, my home state, a suburban school board recently ratified the decision to amend two pages in a science textbook on the grounds that they are breaking a law passed in 2012. A law passed two years ago in Arizona requires schools to teach “preference, encouragement and support to childbirth and adoption” over abortion, and the school board decided that those pages were in violation of this law — even though the Arizona Education Department, which examined the book for compliance, found that they were not.

This is all happening in my community. I have a son slated to use this textbook next year if he opts to take AP. Meanwhile, I’m planning on having my daughter attend the high school where I teach because such outrageous behaviors haven’t begun to extend their reach to that district, yet.

I say “yet” because I’m becoming a realist which, as a teacher, I view as a dangerous thing. For teachers, idealism is a quality that permits us to look at a classroom of students we don’t know and expect great things. Idealism affords us the desire to never give up on students who have social, economic, or developmental disadvantages. But in the face of a school board strategizing to place its political and religious agendas in educational curricula and classroom conduct guidelines, it is a difficult thing to maintain.

It’s not just the absurdity of spending tax dollars to debate the use of scissors and/or Sharpies to remove textbook pages that is so deeply troubling—it’s how rampant such behavior is across the country right now. Last month, in Colorado, students and teachers staged walk outs to protest the proposed doctoring of American History in AP text book and instruction after school board member Julie Williams proposed a change to the school’s history curriculum that appears aimed at replacing education with old-fashioned, Soviet-style propaganda, except in this case in the support of capitalism and American conservatism, instead of communism. Students and teachers at Evergreen High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, are fighting back.

Ms. Williams has proposed that, “Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage.” It’s been a while, and I do teach English, but my recollection of our country’s inception included the right to demonstrate civil disorder in the form of protests as well as the right to challenge laws. Such a proposal by Ms. Williams seems to completely disregard the privilege Americans have to demonstrate dissent. Equally startling is that Pearson Education, Perfection Learning and McGraw Hill have each produced textbooks that link Moses and the Ten Commandments to the founding of the United States. Huh?

In early November, the New York Times ran a story shedding light on some of the recent actions taken by Vladimir Putin and the Education Ministry. It is complex to be sure, but the gist of the situation is that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the textbook industry became freed from the state’s ideology. As stated in the New York Times, “Under President Boris N. Yeltsin, new publishers emerged, and schools could freely choose textbooks from a list approved by the government, based on expert opinions from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Education certifying material was, among other things … creating diversity in what had been a rigid and rote educational system.” But after Putin recently outsourced the production of textbooks (and a Finnish businessman of modest means is now worth millions because of it), the production of more than half of all state approved textbooks has come to a screeching halt. There are rumors of English language studies ceasing because of the perceived negative impact the western world has on the Russian citizenry. In short, accuracy of information is being tampered with for a current political agenda. Arizona, Colorado and Texas, are you reading?

Public education is wrought with problems. I’m aware of this because I am a public school teacher. So many of these problems are due to factors existing outside of schools — and most of those factors boil down to one, poverty. I wonder how soon it will be that I, like teachers in Jefferson County, Colorado, am going to have to stage walk outs, knock on doors and protest in order to maintain some semblance of common sense in the field. Ultimately, any such actions will take away from lesson planning and quality instruction as well as time spent simply learning about my students. I long for school boards composed of reasonable, politically moderate citizens whose main agenda includes the improvement of district schools and oversight of a fair allocation of funding.

Public education is for the general public, not just the conservative public or the liberal public. I wish school boards would stage their political coups in other arenas. It’s certainly time for them to stop interfering with the educational process.