Monday, June 24, 2024

California lawmakers OK bill to fine school boards that ban books over race, LGBTQ+ issues

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The California Legislature approved a bill on Thursday that would allow fines against school boards that ban textbooks based on their inclusion of LGBTQ+ and race lessons — an attempt to halt escalating culture wars playing out in right-leaning enclaves of the liberal state.

The legislation, AB 1078, strengthens the state’s enforcement of laws that require diverse and inclusive education, and appears sure to get the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governor helped craft the legislation after a conservative Temecula school board rejected a lesson featuring slain San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, a gay rights icon.

The bill comes after some local school boards backed by conservative majorities have taken up textbook content and gender identity issues, echoing national talking points about alleged infringements on parental rights.

“California is the true freedom state: a place where families — not political fanatics — have the freedom to decide what’s right for them,” Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement Thursday. “All students deserve the freedom to read and learn about the truth, the world and themselves.”

The bill explicitly requires that the school boards for the state’s 1,000-plus districts approve textbooks that “accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society.” The law would also create a process for county superintendents — and the state — to intervene when school boards do not meet that standard.

Districts that fail to comply would face a “fiscal penalty” — a decrease in state funds through changes in school funding formulas.

“This bill is government blackmail to our locals,” said Assemblymember Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), who voted against AB 1078.

The California School Boards Assn. opposed the bill, calling it “draconian and duplicative” because the state has long had laws requiring lessons on LGBTQ+ history and ethnic studies.

The bill sets a “troubling precedent” for the state to leverage funding in order to punish school boards, the association said, adding that it will have “an unintended impact on the district’s programs, its employees and students.”

The move is a rare interference in education by state officials in California, which has historically leaned on local control when it comes to schools. But Assemblymember Corey Jackson (D-Perris) said it is necessary to protect children from discrimination.

“It will ensure that California pushes back against the disgusting practice of engaging in culture wars and stepping on the backs of vulnerable populations for political gains,” Jackson said on the Assembly floor on Thursday.

Jackson said the bill “has nothing to do with local control,” and that school boards would still be in charge of many curriculum decisions — but now the state has more power to ensure accountability.

In debates about the bill at the Capitol in Sacramento, Republicans said they were not aiming to discriminate, but wanted textbooks to be “age appropriate,” especially when it comes to sex education.

State Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Huntington Beach) voted against AB 1078 and pointed to a case in Orange County, where a school district eliminated the use of a digital library after a parent complained about a book called “A Polar Bear in Love.” In the Japanese book and series, an older male polar bear tells a younger male seal he wants to marry him when he grows up.

Democrats cast doubt on claims of concern about age-appropriate materials, saying parents still can control what their children read, and accusing Republicans of reaching for political gain by way of school boards.

“Too many times, the decisions on whether to ban books are driven by ideology — are driven by QAnon chatrooms and not by fact,” said state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine), who voted for the bill. “It’s under this guise of obscenity or protecting our children, but that is not how we’ve seen it play out.”

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