A school district banned, then unbanned classic books. School choice could have stopped this before it started.

Commentary

A school district banned, then unbanned classic books. School choice could have stopped this before it started.

During a school board meeting yesterday, Accomack County Public Schools voted unanimously to return Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird to its shelves. The Virginia school district had made headlines after temporarily banning the classic works after a parent complained about racial slurs in both books. The district’s initial reaction to the controversy was milquetoast and cowardly, but there might not have been one at all had local parents had more educational choices for their children.

Parent Marie Rothstein-Williams made a formal complaint to the school board last month, arguing that the books offended her biracial son. “I’m not disputing this is great literature,” Rothstein-Williams said in a November 15th school board meeting, “but there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.” Rothstein-Williams worried that the slurs in the works enhanced these divisions. “What are we teaching our children,” she said. “We’re validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by any means.”

First, a point on the parent’s intentions. 2016 has saddled America with its fair share of divisions and racial tensions, but we can’t tackle those problems if we cut our children off from books that preach the virtues of racial tolerance. In order to build a more respectful, pluralistic society today, we can’t ignore difficult periods of our nation’s history—books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird help students grasp where we’ve come from in narrative terms that textbooks just can’t convey. Feeling discomfort from the historically accurate slurs in these books is the point. We have to confront our past flaws with open eyes to build a better future. Given the district’s highly diverse student body comprising around 40 percent Black, 40 percent White, and 20 percent Hispanic students, Harper Lee and Mark Twain are as relevant as ever in the present.

Secondly, we should be happy to hear the books are available again, but ACPS’ administration should be shamed for its initially spineless response. One would like to think that we’ve progressed enough not to give into the mental trap of banning things actual racists wanted banned from schools in the hopes of stopping racism. Sadly, Accomack County Public Schools let the heckler’s veto prevail, depriving over 5,000 students of access to classics of American literature based on the complaint of one parent. District leadership claimed they were only following established policy when they pulled the books pre-emptively before the hearing. But nowhere does the district’s policy document on Public Complaints About Learning Resources require material with complaints brought against to be removed before a hearing recommends it. Nor should it.

Yet no matter what you think about the books in question, the biggest takeaway from Accomack County is that parents need more educational choices if we want to prevent these battles in the future. The controversy only erupted because Rothstein-Williams sought to subject every student in the district to her curricular views. In Virginia, residentially-assigned public schools are the only choice for most families unable to afford private school tuition. When parents don’t have the option to send their kids to schools that teach differently and everyone is forced to learn the same thing the same way, subjective curricular disagreements get blown out of proportion. The Cato Institute’s Public Schooling Battle Map shows just how widespread these unnecessary divisions driven by a lack of choice are.

If any place needs more school choice, it’s Virginia. Despite enrolling nearly 1.3 million students, there are has only 9 charter schools in the entire state. Accomack County has none. Virginia’s charter law is so restrictive that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranks it 39th out of the 43 in the country. The state’s overall friendliness to school choice is dismal as well, with the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2016 Report Card on American Education putting Virginia’s education policies 48th in the nation, in large part thanks to the state’s F ratings for their charter and private school choice friendliness.

With more options, Rothstein-Williams could take her child to a school that taught different books or incorporated them more acceptably in her mind. Similarly, parents who wanted their children to be exposed to both classics could hold cowardly district leaders accountable for caving to censorship pressure by transferring their kids elsewhere. Finally, the threat of losing students to competition might give wavering superintendents more reason to have some spine when it comes to unambiguously important books, like the two in question here. Parents and students deserve choices. If we truly want to ease societal divisions, giving people the options they deserve can help.

Tyler Koteskey was an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.