Republicans Pushed Almost 400 “Education Intimidation” Bills in Past Two Years

Lawmakers in all but four states introduced bills that indirectly censor what’s taught in schools, according to a new report from PEN America.

Protesters pack the hall outside the Indiana House of Representatives during the education committee's hearing on HB 1608, also known as the "Don't Say Gay," bill in Indianapolis. The committee voted 9-4 to send the bill to the house floor. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Protesters at the Indiana House of Representatives during the education committee’s hearing on House Bill 1608, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, in Indianapolis on Feb. 20, 2023. Photo: Jeremy Hogan/Sipa via AP

As students across the country grapple with mass shootings and the looming threat of a decimated planet, Republican lawmakers have trained their energy instead on education. 

Over the last two-and-a-half years, state lawmakers introduced 392 so-called educational intimidation bills, according to a report from PEN America published on Wednesday. As of earlier this summer, only four state legislatures had not seen this type of bill, according to the report, which spans legislative activity from January 2021 to June 2023. All but 15 of the bills were sponsored solely by Republicans.

The wave of legislation documented in the report is complementary to but distinct from “educational gag orders” that explicitly ban materials and content, the authors wrote. Educational intimidation bills create “the conditions for censorship indirectly, threatening the freedoms to teach and learn with death by a thousand cuts.” Such efforts, the authors explain, “pressure educators to be more timid in the content they teach, pressure librarians to be more restrictive in the books they make available to students, and pressure students to limit their self-expression.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that “the fear is the point” for states passing such laws. “Teachers are walking on eggshells because their freedom to teach, and kids’ freedom to learn, is under siege,” Weingarten told The Intercept. “The freedom to express oneself is foundational to the idea of America: from the Revolutionary War onward. So, it is an anathema for any state or local government to engage in the practice of censoring the facts and the science that is taught to our students.”

“Teachers are walking on eggshells because their freedom to teach, and kids’ freedom to learn, is under siege.”

Practically speaking, the assault on education has resulted in wide-reaching book and content bans, rampant harassment against educators and teaching staff, and an inhibited educational environment for students. 

“This rising tide of educational intimidation exposes the movement that cloaks itself in the language of ‘parental rights’ for what it really is: a smoke screen for efforts to suppress teaching and learning and hijack public education in America,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, in a statement. 

Legislators in Missouri introduced 30 educational intimidation bills, the most of any state identified by PEN America, followed by Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Indiana, and Mississippi. Florida, meanwhile, is one of the leaders in the number of bills passed, with five of 15 such pieces of legislation signed into law.

The high efficacy rate has been helped by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has pursued an all-out assault against education, often under the guise of “parental rights.” DeSantis, who will appear in the first GOP presidential debate on Wednesday evening, has forced the College Board to water down its Advanced Placement African American studies course and overseen the effective banning of AP psychology in public schools. The legislature has expanded the state’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law to ban any classroom discussion of race and sexuality to every single grade in the state.

Earlier this year, a Florida school district that covers 48 schools serving over 50,000 students banned a variety of titles — such as the graphic novel of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the popular “A Court of Thorns and Roses” series of novels, and Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” — from all school and classroom libraries. The sweeping ban came after the passage of a Florida law that mandates books in public schools be subject to review by a “specialist.”

Friedman noted that parents have long rightfully had the chance to inspect and object to public school curricula. “This spate of provisions dramatically expands these powers in ways that are designed to spur schools and educators to self-censor.”

Another new Florida law gives schools just five days to remove any book that is challenged for containing “sexual content” for review. The report notes that while any decision about a book can be appealed, school districts would foot the cost of such proceedings. “This provision is yet another form of intimidation: districts wary of incurring such costs will be more likely to simply preemptively remove from their collections any books that might be remotely controversial,” the authors wrote.

In Iowa, a school library content moderation law pushed by Gov. Kim Reynolds has already spurred expansive bans. After the law was signed in May, school administrators in one district removed nearly 400 titles, including J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” George Orwell’s “1984,” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

The district defended its actions by saying it “had to take a fairly broad interpretation of the law knowing that if our interpretation was too finite, our teachers and administrators could be faced with disciplinary actions according to the new law.”

The PEN America researchers found that 45 percent of the educational intimidation bills introduced just this year contained an anti-LGBTQ+ provision, including the forced outing of LGBTQ+ students. This comes at a time when many school-age LGBTQ+ children have considered suicide in the past year, according to the Trevor Project. 


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One Texas law, for example, orders private vendors to categorize books prior to selling them to school libraries. Books marked as “sexually explicit” are banned, while those that are “sexually relevant” require parental permission for student access. 

The law has put both educators and book vendors in a tight spot, notes the PEN America report. While teachers face the potential censorship of all books dealing with LGBTQ+ topics, booksellers may opt not to sell to Texas schools at all out of fear of violating the law’s burdensome requirements. 

There is reason to think such laws will have a chilling effect. In an analysis of 82 schools in 43 districts, researchers at Boston University found that schools where someone had filed a challenge against a book in the 2021-2022 school year were 55 percent less likely to purchase books with LGBTQ+ content the following year.

Educators are also faring poorly under these conditions. According to a January 2023 survey with 300 school district leaders across the country, 31 percent reported that their teachers received verbal or written threats related to politically controversial topics during the 2021-2022 school year. Forty-six percent said their ability to educate students has been compromised because of polarization surrounding LGBTQ+ issues, and 41 percent reported similar with regard to critical race theory. 

Librarians, stewards of a school’s trove of books, have been particular targets of the vitriol. One Louisiana middle school librarian experienced months of targeted harassment after she spoke out against a local book ban proposal. “You can’t hide, we know where you live. You have a target on your back. Click click,” a stranger wrote to her in a message. Amid the online harassment, the librarian’s hair began falling out. Her body broke out into hives. She stopped sleeping, while suffering from panic attacks and severe weight loss. She stopped leaving her house.

Meanwhile, states like Florida are struggling to fill public school jobs, while an overwhelming majority of teachers in Texas have considered leaving the field, according to a recent survey.

Sixty-nine percent of Americans are opposed to lawmakers passing bills to ban certain books and remove them from school libraries.

The attack on education is unpopular with most of the American public. According to an NPR/Ipsos poll, 69 percent of Americans are opposed to lawmakers passing bills to ban certain books and remove them from school libraries; only 17 percent are in support. 

“Americans don’t want divisive MAGA politics in schools: they want safe and welcoming classrooms with the resources and support for kids to recover and thrive,” said Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers. “And make no mistake: my union will defend each and every educator who stands up and teaches the truth because that is what teachers do.”

Correction: August 23, 2023, 10:30 a.m.
A previous version of this article said that Florida led all states in the number of bills passed, but it is in fact second in the country.

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