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Congress grapples with explicit content debate in school libraries

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder waves to the 2023 Parade Day crowd on Tuesday, July 11. (Hudson Pullen, Oil City News)

CASPER, Wyo. — Megan Degenfelder, the elected state superintendent of public instruction for Wyoming, testified before Congress Oct. 19, highlighting the need to shield children from explicit content in school libraries.

The testimony was given at a House Committee on Education & the Workforce meeting titled “Protecting Kids: Combatting Graphic, Explicit Content in School Libraries.”

“We must safeguard our children from graphic and sexually explicit content in school libraries,” she declared, expressing her bewilderment that the act of protecting children has become controversial. “When did the very act of safeguarding our kids … become an uphill battle?”

Degenfelder’s Case

“The fundamental purpose of public education is to prepare students for jobs and to be good American citizens,” Degenfelder said.

She cited concerns from Wyoming voters about explicit content in schools, which is eroding their trust in the public education system.

She recounted the story of a mother, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, who was deeply disturbed by a sexually explicit book her daughter brought home from school. The mother’s concern was shared by other students, but their objections were dismissed, further eroding trust in the education system.

Degenfelder also emphasized that this should be a local issue, not a federal one.

“ACT scores are at a record low and the national average of students proficient or above on NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] are only 26 to 35%. So how do we solve this issue? It certainly should not be left up to the federal government. I respect local control in government, including the authority of books and curriculum by locally elected school boards,” Degenfelder said.

When asked about the success Wyoming has had on the issue by Rep. Aaron Bean, a Republican in Florida, Degenfelder further emphasized the point.

“I believe wholeheartedly in local control and decision-making as close to the people as possible. As I mentioned, knowing that school board members are made up of volunteers and have a heavy task ahead of them … we need to make sure that we provide support to them, model policy, and guidance from the state level.”

Degenfelder added that no matter what grade students are in, almost all of them are under 18.

“There are books available … with graphic depictions of sexual acts that are made available to minor children under the age of sexual consent,” Degenfelder said.

The Free Expression Argument

However, Degenfelder’s concerns were countered by Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at Penn America. Friedman warned of an “alarming attack on free expression.”

He mentioned that their research indicated over 3,000 instances of books banned in the 2022–23 school year, affecting 33 states and 153 public school districts. He emphasized the importance of distinguishing between individual parents’ concerns and larger organized efforts to censor educational materials.

Friedman said, “Our students deserve … works of literature that reflect their identities and the complexities of their lives.”

The “Book Ban” Debate

Testimony by Max Eden, research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, questioned the term “book ban,” suggesting that the media’s portrayal is misleading. He asserted that “the most banned book, ‘genderqueer,’ is still available on Amazon.”

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, introduced letters from the American Library Association emphasizing that one parent’s wish to restrict materials should not infringe upon another parent’s right to choose.

Local Tensions Reflect National Concerns

These congressional testimonies mirror debates at the local level. In Cheyenne, LCSD1’s “opt-out” policy allows parents to restrict their children from accessing certain books. Recent efforts to introduce an “opt-in” policy have ignited controversy, with opponents labeling it a “book ban.”

In contrast, the Natrona County School District implemented a new opt-in/opt-out procedure for their school libraries, giving parents more control over their children’s access to learning materials.

Leadership Changes and Library Reforms

The debate has effects outside of school libraries as well. There’s been unrest in Campbell County, where the library board’s decision to fire Executive Director Terri Lesley stirred controversy. The board subsequently adjusted job qualifications for the position, suggesting a broader shift in the county’s approach to library management.