The Perfect Enemy | Book Banning, Curriculum Restrictions, and the Politicization of U.S. Schools
September 29, 2022

Book Banning, Curriculum Restrictions, and the Politicization of U.S. Schools

Book Banning, Curriculum Restrictions, and the Politicization of U.S. Schools  Center For American Progress

Read Time:20 Minute

Introduction and summary

Recent debates across the country have pushed for book banning and the adoption of politically motivated laws and policies on school curricula. Such measures seek to prevent teachers from providing a thorough curriculum on American history, civics, and government in U.S. public schools and deny students their rights to a complete education.1 At least 17 states have introduced bills containing gag orders2 or taken other steps that would restrict how teachers can discuss American history and current events, including pulling books off library shelves in an effort to suppress so-called “divisive concepts”—a shorthand affectation nearly always referring to issues about race and identity.3

In Texas, for example, at least 713 books have been banned from public schools, and school districts’ and school boards’ attempts to censor books have triggered a systematic review of hundreds of books in every school district in the entire state.4 These censorship efforts require tens of thousands of hours from teachers, librarians, and administrators to review the books and implement a system of censorship—all at a time when school resources are already stretched thin, and states across the country are facing teacher and staff shortages.

These actions run counter to the shared value of free speech that has informed generations of American progress. They also violate the First Amendment, 14th Amendment, and Title IX rights of all students and educators, with particular disproportionate impact on people of color and LGBTQI+ individuals.5 However, despite some states’ and localities’ focus on book bans and curriculum restrictions, national polling data detailed throughout this report reveal that a majority of Americans oppose the anti-public-education movement, which involves policy decisions that perpetuate discrimination and inequity in education by cutting or reallocating funding dedicated to public schools toward private or alternative schooling structures that tend to benefit the wealthy; want teachers and students to play a more active role in determining school curricula; and want schools to embrace diversity and inclusion. But this is not evident from many media headlines, which often sensationalize popular political talking points, even those with no basis in truth.

The anti-public-education movement … involves policy decisions that perpetuate discrimination and inequity in education by cutting or reallocating funding dedicated to public schools toward private or alternative schooling structures that tend to benefit the wealthy.

Education should not be politicized

Preparing students for all types of civic engagement by teaching complete history is crucial; yet beginning as early as the 2016 Trump administration campaign, efforts to weaken the U.S. Department of Education through proposed cuts of $7.1 billion6 in funding. These cuts would undermine the department’s guidance and protections of vulnerable students attending public school, continue to threaten the future of public education in the United States.

When Americans call their legislators, join school boards, or utilize social media platforms to share their concerns about education, they are exercising the right to make their voices heard on policy issues—a right that is central to the American civic engagement process. Schools have a core responsibility to teach students about these processes. Book bans and curriculum gag orders make it impossible for every child to receive a high-quality and age-appropriate education by dictating whose history, identities, and voices matter.

For example, when a 2022 nationwide survey from Campaign for Our Shared Future7 asked, “All things being equal, would you prefer that each of the following take a more active role in the decisions about the subjects students are taught in schools, or a less active role?”, 92 percent of parents and 85 percent of voters overall said they believe that teachers should play a more active role in decisions about what subjects are taught in classrooms.8 Additionally, 74 percent of parents and 71 percent of voters overall reported believing that current high school students should play the second-most-active role.9

Ongoing state and local actions to ban books simply because they address racism, white supremacy, or LGBTQI+ issues have inspired students to stand up for their civil rights. Young adults attending public, charter, and private schools in Delaware began submitting stories of their experiences with overt and systemic racism,10 countering the narrative that America is a post-racial country and that racism no longer exists. Hundreds of students have taken to student-run social media accounts on platforms such as Instagram to tell their stories in the form of quotes or summaries detailing their experiences with racism and other forms of discrimination in their public, charter, and private schools.11 Young adults in Texas and Pennsylvania have also protested,12 while others in Missouri have sued their districts for removing books that are inclusive of multiple groups across racial/ethnic, gender, nondisabled and disabled, and socioeconomic lines.13

Attempts to limit learning are un-American

Recent survey research conducted by the National Education Association14 and ASO Communications15 between September and October 2021 found that “everyone across demographics agrees” that removing history from curricula and banning books are tools that politicians use to control a political narrative. GBAO and Anchor Collaborative conducted a similar survey in April and May 2022 and found a majority of Americans felt that efforts to censor classroom conversations about race “go way too far.”16 The survey asked participants to rate on a scale of 0–10 how well a group of statements on “historical facts, honesty, and no one being ashamed of their background” described how they feel about race in America, where 10 means the statement “describes how you feel very well” and 0 means it “does not describe how you feel at all.” Fifty-nine percent of people responded to the following statement with a rating of 8–10:

Efforts to censor teachers, omit history, or ban important conversations about race in our schools go way too far. Our children deserve an education honest about who we are, demonstrating integrity in how we treat others, and creating a sense of belonging so every child has the freedom to learn, grow, and pursue their dreams.

Research findings from Campaign for Our Shared Future17 found that in a national sample of parents and nonparents ages 18 and older who are registered or likely voters, more than half were overall supportive of, and voted in favor of, educators teaching about the following topics in K-12 schools:18

  • Civil rights movement: 87 percent of parents and 78 percent of nonparents ages 18 and older
  • The history and experiences of Native Americans: 86 percent of parents and 79 percent of nonparents ages 18 and older
  • Slavery: 74 percent of parents and 71 percent of nonparents ages 18 and older
  • Racial inequity in America’s past: 73 percent of parents and 66 percent of nonparents ages 18 and older
  • Ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the United States: 69 percent of parents and 60 percent of nonparents ages 18 and older
  • Systemic racism in America’s institutions and society: 59 percent of parents and 53 percent of nonparents ages 18 and older

Yet, in less than one year, state legislators have called for districtwide reviews of books, despite a nationwide teacher shortage and other existing strains on the teacher workforce.19 These actions are part of anti-public-school policies and agendas, which have adverse impacts on the experiences of students who attend these schools. More recently, states such as Arizona20 and Tennessee21 have also resurrected former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ privatization schemes and proposals to expand tax incentives that benefit private-school parents by passing voucher laws allowing parents to move their children into private school or other alternative schooling options with no accountability in accordance with Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) law.

Interestingly, polling data on voters’ attitudes toward school voucher programs reveal that despite Arizona voters’ previous opposition to and rejection of a similar universal vouchers proposal—with 67 percent voting “No” and 33 percent voting “Yes”— in 2018, Arizona lawmakers successfully passed a new law on school choice vouchers.22 Other national polling results found that 49 percent of survey participants believe:23

Certain politicians try to use race to turn us against schools and teachers, or point the finger at parents. These politicians want to keep us from coming together to demand every school provide a quality education to every child, not just the children of the wealthy few.

More than 1,500 book bans have occurred in at least 86 school districts in 26 states since politicians began igniting the anti-public-education movement toward the end of 2019.24 Of the total number of books banned, 41 percent include protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are people of color; 22 percent of the titles directly address issues of race and racism; 16 percent are history books or biographies; and 9 percent have themes related to rights and activism.25 Other survey results revealed that 51 percent of survey participants responded to the following statement with a rating of 8–10, with 10 indicating that the statement describes how they feel “very well”:26

While educators work to deliver our children accurate and honest education, some politicians are trying to censor the truth of our history, passing laws to ban learning from the mistakes of our past and erase leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood up to racism and changed our country for the better.

Many banned books include issues on race and racism

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41%

Share of banned books that include protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are people of color

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22%

Share of banned books that directly address issues of race and racism

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16%

Share of banned books that are history books or biographies

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9%

Share of banned books that have themes related to rights and activism

Book bans and the passage of laws to allegedly combat critical race theory—so-called divisive-concepts laws—have nothing to do with the actual tenets of critical race theory, a form of scholarship that emerged in critical legal studies discourse by scholars of various disciplines, including law, sociology, education, and other social sciences. Critical race theory analyzes and critiques “formalism” and “objectivism” in American legal and social institutions when examining the relationship between power and law27 and holds that subjective personal voice, or storytelling as a methodological tool in legal analysis or education policy research,28 reveals two important things about the law: 1) how the law has been shaped and 2) how law shapes issues of race.29 But some media outlets are inaccurately describing it as ideas around “inferiority,” “inherently racist,” “oppressive,” “unpatriotic,” or “divisive” concepts.30 Polling data showed 46 percent of survey respondents agreed that the following statements align “very well” with their views:31

Out of touch politicians are trying to confront problems the only way they know how: lying about them. The same grifters who have peddled lies about our election want to peddle lies about our history, hoping to keep us divided and distracted so they can take away our freedom to vote and deny us the resources our schools, families, and communities actually need.

Inclusive history and school curricula strengthen communities

The inclusion of complete U.S. history in public school curricula serves the public good. America’s public schools exist as an epicenter of teaching and learning of truth. If children are not taught accurate and inclusive historical facts in school, they will find information to fill the void—often from unreliable and agenda-driven sources on the internet that may lead them to believe false and even harmful narratives.

Culturally responsive pedagogy involves teaching diverse history; it teaches children how to relate to their own family members and communities who may hold identities that differ from their own. All families deserve access to supportive curricula targeted to meet their unique socio-emotional and social identity needs, especially during the growing mental health crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past two years. In the wake of the pandemic’s impacts on the K-12 education system—creating learning gaps that have been exacerbated by an increasing teacher shortage—the politicization of public education also gave some states and school districts the opportunity to ban books and restrict curricula, just to score political points. Schools must remain a neutral place of learning for all students of all backgrounds.

Recent polling data from Education Next find that almost two-thirds, or 64 percent, of all parents who responded to the survey believed that their child’s school places an appropriate emphasis on slavery, racism, and discrimination against Black people, with 69 percent of Republican parents saying their child’s school placed an appropriate emphasis on race and racism.32 Additional polling data on school curricula asked Democrats and Republicans the following questions:33

  • “How appropriate is it for schools to include discussions of slavery and racism in teaching about U.S. history?”
  • “How appropriate is it for schools to include discussion of how slavery and racism continue to impact our social, economic, and political systems today?”

Responses revealed that 93 percent of Democrats responded that they believe it is appropriate for schools to include discussions of slavery and racism in teaching about U.S. history, with 67 percent indicating that they strongly believe it is appropriate. However, only 71 percent of Republicans responded that they believe these discussions are appropriate in schools, with only 45 percent indicating a strong belief on this point. On the whole, Democratic respondents were 22 percentage points more likely than Republican respondents to believe that the discussion of slavery and racism in U.S. history classes is appropriate.

Survey respondents differ in their views on whether schools should include discussions of slavery and racism in teaching about U.S. history

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93%

Share of Democratic survey respondents who said they believe it is appropriate

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67%

Share of Democratic survey respondents who said they strongly believe it is appropriate

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71%

Share of Republican survey respondents who said they believe it is appropriate

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45%

Share of Republican survey respondents who said they strongly believe it is appropriate

On the question of whether schools should include discussions on the continued social, economic, and political impacts of slavery and racism when teaching U.S. history, 89 percent of Democrats believed it is appropriate for schools to include these discussions in classroom instruction, with 70 percent indicating that they strongly believe it is appropriate. However, only 48 percent of Republicans believed that these discussions are appropriate in school, with only 15 percent indicating a strong belief on this point. On the whole, Democratic respondents were significantly more likely than their Republican counterparts to believe that the discussion of the continued impacts of slavery and racism in U.S. history classes is appropriate.

In response to concerns about the teaching of history and culture in schools, several states, including Colorado, Connecticut, and Delaware, have passed bills mandating the inclusion of civic and social contributions of American Indian, Black, Pacific Islander, and Asian American communities as well as of the intersecting identity, religious, and cultural features within each community.34 In Delaware, Gov. John Carney (D) passed H.B. 198,35 which called for each district and charter school to implement a complete curriculum on Black history for students in grades K-12. In June of this year, Arizona also passed a law requiring the state Board of Education to include discussions in social studies classes on political ideologies that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy in the United States.36

These state legislative actions demonstrate support for parents and teachers who believe that young people cannot be fully engaged in the democratic process without learning the fundamental facts concerning a social cause, issue, law, or policy. America’s youth must be afforded the opportunity to learn full and complete U.S. history in order to actively participate in the system of democracy they inherit when they turn 18 years old.

The May 2022 survey results from GBAO and Anchor Collaborative also asked participants in the sample to rate on a scale of 0–10 how well a group of statements on “historical facts, honesty, and no one being ashamed of their background” described how they feel about race in America, where 10 means the statement describes how they feel very well and 0 means it does not describe how they feel at all. The results found that 54 percent of participants responded to the following statement with a rating of 8–10:37

Teenagers & young adults today are passionate, active, aware, & more accepting of everyone. These young people want to keep moving the world forward. Those that want to silence them want to take us backwards. So let’s make sure young people get an education that empowers them to make a better future.

These findings suggest that providing an education that includes a diverse history and curricula helps to inform democratic engagement at an early age.

Teachers and families should stand against anti-public-education legislation

When participants in the sample were asked to rate on a scale of 0­–10 how well the following statements, which focused on “historical facts, honesty, and no one being ashamed of their background,” described how they feel about race in America, 45 percent of respondents said they felt that the following statement aligned “very well” with their views:38

Attacks on how we teach and talk about race and racism draw from the oldest playbook in American politics. Politicians use fear of people of color, immigrants, or LGBTQ people to breed resentment so they can retain power and dominance by undermining our multiracial democracy.

The federal government has remained steadfast in supporting the teaching of American history and civics education in K-12 schools. Under Title II of ESSA, the Department of Education awarded six competitive grants from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2021 for helping schools work with local nonprofits to teach curricula on American history and civics education. Most recently, Street Law was awarded funding in partnership with the Georgetown University Law Center to implement a program called Talking About Local Current and Contested Issues in Schools (TALCCS), where Georgetown law students partnered with local Baltimore County school districts to teach young people curricula that reflect diversity, identities, histories, contributions of all students.39 Social studies teachers, who are often overlooked when it comes to professional development opportunities, receive regular instructional support, check-ins, and reflection opportunities as part of TALCCS implementation and evaluation.

An innovative part of the logic model is the community deliberations aspect, where students and teachers participate in hands-on, civic engagement and deliberate on current issues while receiving support from Georgetown staff to help address their fears about bringing current and controversial issues into classrooms. These types of programs need to be implemented nationwide. Not only do they reaffirm the belief that everyone should participate in civic life, but they also amplify impact through a community-schools approach by connecting schools, communities, and legal professionals to solve individual and community problems. Community deliberations encourage people to work together toward policy on local or cross-district issues that benefit all communities. Congress should utilize the existing provision in Title II, Part B of ESSA as a federal accountability guideline to ensure that all students have opportunities to receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, as well as to close educational achievement gaps.

ESSA Title II provides funding to help support the teaching of American history and civics education

The teaching of American history and civics education is listed under ESSA Title II, Part B: National Activities. The secretary of education is authorized to reserve no less than 26 percent of the appropriated, competitive funds for “an institution of higher education or other nonprofit or for-profit organization with demonstrated expertise in the development of evidence-based approaches” whose projected plans will improve:40

(1) the quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and (2) the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history.41

Under Section 2233: National Activities, ESSA defines national activities to include those that:

(A) show potential to improve the quality of student achievement in, and teaching of, American history, civics and government, or geography, in elementary schools and secondary schools; and (B) demonstrate innovation, scalability, accountability, and a focus on underserved populations; and (2) may include—(A) hands-on civic engagement activities for teachers and students; and (B) programs that educate students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights.

Moving forward, the federal government must continue to provide funding and other supports to ensure that teachers who value the nation’s diverse history can teach it. One way the government can demonstrate this support is by issuing federal guidance reiterating the significance of these grants and the importance of cross-collaboration between schools and nonprofits, followed by additional guidelines for effective implementation and use of competitive grant funds. If these actions are taken, the Department of Education will be able to better support and hold K-12 schools accountable for providing all students with a quality education.

Conclusion

Overall, researchers found that respondents were more likely to respond positively when messaging emphasized the prioritization of qualified educators and proven facts in the classroom. Respondents were also more likely to agree with messaging that stressed collectivity and used words such as “integrity,” “freedom,” “honesty,” and “sense of belonging” when discussing these topics.

Ultimately, crafting good policies should prioritize teaching truth, not restricting or omitting important aspects of U.S. history simply because more inclusive curricula might make some students feel uncomfortable or shamed about the United States’ history of racially discriminatory systems and laws. Survey data indicate that 58 percent of parents and voters feel that the following statement describes “very well” how they feel about teaching historical facts, prioritizing honesty, and supporting individuals and families from all backgrounds:42

Kids in this country have not been taught our full, honest history, including some of America’s worst chapters. No one should be made to feel ashamed of who they are-no matter their background. But we’ll all progress as a country if we learn and acknowledge the mistakes of the past.

Legislators need to combat policies that violate students’ rights by ensuring that the accountability systems in place for protecting their rights are operating as intended and that all students are receiving a quality education. Failure to protect elementary and secondary school students’ rights to an improved quality of education that teaches complete and accurate American history, literature, civics, and government—including the history and principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights—is a direct violation of the Department of Education’s explicit responsibility to abide by its mission to “promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”43 The department must continue to monitor the state and local landscape of school curricula on American history, as well as state actions on book banning, and offer technical guidance to schools that seek to implement more inclusive strategies or other policies ensuring that school districts are not violating students’ First Amendment rights.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Allie Pearce, policy analyst for the K-12 Education Policy team, and Jamil Modaffari, research associate for the K-12 Education Policy team, for helping support the research for this report. She would also like to thank Edwith Theogene, senior director for Racial Equity and Justice; Jesse O’Connell, senior vice president for Education; and Mara Rudman, executive vice president of policy, for their thoughtful review of this report.