Virginia House Delegate R. Steven Landes is not about to let Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) skate on the issue of warning parents that the textbooks their children are reading could contain the kind of sexually explicit material that one of his legislative Republicans described as “filth.”
The Virginia legislature failed to override Gov. McAuliffe’s veto of House Bill 516, which would have sounded the sexual alarm. McAuliffe argued the state’s board of education was already working on a new policy regarding classroom material that some parents might find objectionable, so there was no need for the legislation.
“The Virginia Board of Education has been examining this issue recently and has been engaged in lengthy and substantive conversations with school boards, teachers, parents, and students about existing local policies and potential state policies to address these concerns,” McAuliffe said.
Great, Landes said. When are they going to do something about it? Landes claimed the state school board had been doing nothing but putting off a final decision on the issue for years.
At the heart of this debate, even more than what is porn and what is art, is whether local school officials and teachers know more about what should be in students’ curriculum than parents.
McAuliffe said school boards have traditionally been in charge of curriculum management. He didn’t see any reason for that to change.
“School boards are best positioned to ensure that our students are exposed to those appropriate literary and artistic works that will expand students’ horizons and enrich their learning experiences,” McAuliffe said.
“School boards are also most knowledgeable about those materials that will best position our students to succeed in Advanced Placement and other college preparatory programs,” he added.
Landes begged to disagree.
“Parents make decisions every day about what video games kids play, what movies they watch, and what material they consume online,” Landes said in a statement. “They should have the same opportunity within the classroom. Virginia already has similar policies for sexual education and science curriculums.”
Appropriately enough, it was a parent who started this debate. Laura Murphy was outraged that her son, a high school senior, was required to read the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved.
Murphy told the Washington Post she wanted to be able to force her son’s teacher to assign a new book, just like she would be able to pull her child out of a sex-education class that she felt went too far.
“It just stands to reason when walking across the hall to English class, to be consistent, the same policies should apply,” Murphy said.
Beyond the parental involvement argument, McAuliffe also said he didn’t think the Virginia legislature had any business deciding what was “sexually explicit” and what was “an artistic work.”
It’s not that he doesn’t think politicians are equipped to judge, although that is part of it. But McAuliffe said the biggest problem was that House Bill 516 would allow a book or work of art to be banned for a single scene taken out of context.
Both Jessica Berg, an AP literature and language teacher at Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County, Va., and state Sen. Richard Black think they know the difference between art and pornography, and neither thinks the other’s judgement should be trusted.
Gawker published a sizzling email exchange between the two in which Berg begged Black to change his vote on House Bill 516 and he called Beloved “moral sewage.”
Berg began the exchange by expressing her outrage at the fact that a parent’s complaint about Beloved was the genesis for House Bill 516.
“The essence of great literature is conflict, conflict of the human condition and all it encompasses. Great literature presents this conflict for us the readers to engage with, connect to, and learn from,” Berg wrote. “We are supposed to be shaken, made aware, stand in someone else’s shoes, start a dialogue, have our horizons broadened.”
One of Black’s Senate aides pointed out to Gawker that great conflict in the human experience aside, there are at least a dozen references to the human “penis/vagina/inside part.”
“That book is so vile – – so profoundly filthy – – that when a Senator rose on the Senate Floor and began reading a single passage, several other senators leapt to their feet to interrupt the reading. Susan Schaar, the Senate Clerk, quickly had embarrassed Senate Officials rush the teenage Senate Pages from the Senate Floor in order to protect them from exposure to this moral sewage,” Black wrote to Berg.
The majority of the Virginia legislature agreed with Black, not Berg. But this time, it was Gov. McAuliffe’s decision that mattered most.
However, Landes said McAuliffe may not have seen the last of this debate.
If the Virginia Board of Education does not come through with a new parental notification policy by the time the legislature reconvenes next year, Landes promised he will introduce a new version of House Bill 516.