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Proposed legislation would notify parents of child library checkouts

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Proposed legislation would notify parents of child library checkouts

Nov 29, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Isiah Holmes
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Proposed legislation would notify parents of child library checkouts
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Sens. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron) and Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) testify on the library bills. (Screenshot | WisconsinEye)

A nationwide discussion about which books should be kept out of the hands of K-12 students came to the state Capitol Tuesday. Two proposed bills (SB-597 and SB-598) got a public hearing before the Senate Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, Children & Families. The measures would require school boards and public libraries to create systems to notify  parents about materials a student checks out within 24 hours.

Sens. Romaine Quinn (R-Cameron) and Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc) testified before the committee that over the last year, their offices have been inundated by complaints from parents about books in public libraries. Quinn noted that Wisconsin already has a law providing that  parents of children under the age of 16 may request library materials and records provided to the student. Quinn added  that school boards and libraries have policies in place to deal with removing books and handling complaints. The bills developed by Quinn and Dittrich add a parental notification requirement.

Proposed legislation would notify parents of child library checkouts
Rep. Barb Dittrich

“This bill puts the parent and/or guardian in the driver seat to have conversations with their children about any materials or themes that they find their child is not ready to be exposed to,” said Quinn. “The onus should not be put on the librarian, the aid, or the volunteer to make that decision as parenting styles differ from family to family, and many libraries have a self-check-out system where there may not be any interactions when the child has the entire trip to the library.”

Dittrich said that in the past, school administrations struggled to get parents to be engaged with their children’s education. Then the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 arose, putting a halt to most forms of travel, business, recreation, and services. Dittrich described the pandemic  as having “made life interesting for all of us.” Parents began to notice the books that were being provided to students in schools, said Dittrich. “All of a sudden these disengaged parents were suddenly seeing maybe what their kids were learning in school, what their kids were checking out, and things really became contentious,” said Dittrich. It was a “fracture” in Dittrich’s words, out of which sprang the voices of parents upset about the books that were in their kids’ classrooms.

Throughout the public hearing, supporters of the bill described  books that  angered parents as “inappropriate.”

“Like Sen. Quinn just mentioned, that measure of appropriateness is different for each family,” Dittrich said. She also pushed back on criticism that  the bills were inspired by a motivation to restrict discussion or ban books. “It’s time to bring the temperature down on this whole issue of books,” said Dittrich.

Proposed legislation would notify parents of child library checkouts
Sen. Jesse James (Screenshot | WisconsinEye)

In addition to hearing from  parents who feel certain books are inappropriate, she has also heard from parents who want their kids to balance fiction and non-fiction materials, Dittrich said. “I think people have ascribed some motives to these pieces of legislation that aren’t necessarily there,” said Dittrich. “We want parental engagement.” The goal, Dittrich explained, is to “bring down the temperature” surrounding a controversial issue.

When asked by committee members, the senators denied that the bills were intended to restrict or ban books. But those are exactly the concerns the bills – and others like them – have raised during the last legislative cycle. Since 2020, conservative parents and school officials have taken a keen interest in books that feature LGBTQ topics or characters, certain aspects of American history including  slavery and Native American genocide and other social justice topics Conservative organizing has driven a wave of book purges in school districts, banning, restricting, or relocating hundreds of titles.

In Wisconsin, multiple school districts have seen those efforts guided by a list of “inappropriate” books compiled by parent groups. Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona), who chairs the committee alongside vice chair Sen. Rachael Cabral-Guevara (R-Appleton), was provided a version of this list when he was still an Assembly representative. James was sent the list by a parent who said she’d found sexually inappropriate books, as well as material teaching “our kids to hate cops and their white skin.” The parent suggested passing a law to remove protections for librarians so they could be  held criminally liable for providing inappropriate reading materials to children. James and other Republican lawmakers worked on drafts of legislation that would expose library and school staff to felonies for providing “inappropriate” or “obscene” material to young students. Dittrich and Quinn stressed that their bills are not intended to persecute librarians or teachers.

The same list James received was used in southern Wisconsin to purge books from the Elmbrook School District. Meanwhile, the district removed privacy protections for student check-outs. Information on materials students checked out was sent to their parents on a weekly basis. LGBTQ advocates warned such policies could have disastrous consequences for students who come from less tolerant families. The Kenosha Unified School District also removed LGBTQ titles from library shelves.

Line of books from the side with library shelves of books behind them
Photo by Jessica Ruscello on Unsplash

During the Senate committee hearing, representatives from libraries in the  Elmbrook, Beloit, Wauwatosa and  Outagamie-Waupaca communities, as well as officials from the Department of Public Instruction and members of the public testified that the bills are unnecessary. Some noted that a plethora of tools are already available for parents to learn what books are provided in class and what their children are checking out. Others described the daunting task of monitoring students and notifying parents. Some districts have thousands of students, and would require tens of thousands of notifications. Some districts have tools which give parents  real-time access to their child’s reading materials, including log-in credentials in some cases.

“As there is a staffing crisis, and not all schools have a certified full-time librarian, I am concerned that this will require a large amount of administrative time when there is not enough staff right now,” said Emily Dittmar, legislative chair of the Wisconsin Educational Media and Technology Association. Dittmar called such notifications “fiscally irresponsible.” Making the bill’s requirements a reality would take teachers and librarians away from other tasks and crucial student interactions. “Please consider how this bill could put a burden on schools both in personnel, and in resources,” said Dittmar.

Proposed legislation would notify parents of child library checkouts
During the 2022–23 school year, book bans occurred in 153 districts across 33 states, according to a PEN America report. (Getty Images)

“Instead of spending time and resources on real issues facing Wisconsin families and students, like making child care more affordable or ensuring Wisconsin schools are fully funded,” said Lucy Ripp, communications director for A Better Wisconsin Together, “state Republicans are continuing their efforts to meddle in personal and educational decisions they have no business in — this time with a bill that unjustly scrutinizes school libraries, imposes unwarranted burdens on local librarians, and impedes upon Wisconsin students’ freedom to read.”

“How hypocritical that Wisconsin Republicans, the party of ‘small government’, want to ban books and know what every individual is checking out from the library,” said Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard. “This Orwellian-inspired overreach is chilling and intimidates our librarians and educators under the facade of parental rights. Senate Democrats do not support these GOP efforts to stifle learning and limit access to information.”