Bills to increase scrutiny of school library books, access to classrooms advance

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — Schools would be required to publicly post every new book bought for their libraries, have elected governing board members approve all new book purchases and let parents know every book their child checks out under a proposal Senate Republicans advanced Tuesday.

Critics said the new requirements would decrease diversity of viewpoints by adding library books to the ongoing school culture wars that have roiled school districts in Arizona and across the nation over the past year.

Special education teacher Alicia Messing spoke against the measure, saying it could potentially lead to censorship of diverse viewpoints if parents disagree with them. She pleaded with the Senate Education Committee to recognize that it could inspire heightened polarization and stifle representation in school literature. 

“We have lots of control over what books we choose to have on our bookshelves and our nightstands. We do get to control what books we read and what books our children read. What we don’t get to do is choose for everybody,” she said. 

But Rep. Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, said the bill was all about increasing transparency and keeping parents in the loop about what their children are learning. 

“If parents have an issue with anything that’s being purchased in the library, they have the ability to speak to their governing board,” she said. 

Her measure, House Bill 2439, passed the House of Representatives on Feb. 15 on a party-line vote, with only Republican support. 

Committee members said there were  a host of logistical concerns. 

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Paradise Valley, wondered if all current books would need to be posted for review. There were several moments of confusion as neither Pingerelli nor committee staff were able to answer her question. Finally, Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, reread the bill’s stipulations and concluded that current books are exempt from the 60-day public review process but not from being included in the online catalog. 

Marsh, a former teacher, also objected to the unpaid workload addition. Many schools don’t have full-time trained librarian staff. Those schools are exempted from posting a list of new purchases online, but not from preparing individual student lists if a parent requests them. 

“This becomes another unfunded mandate. It implies there is manpower for this. I can’t stress enough, folks: librarians, front office people and administrators are already understaffed and covering for sick teachers in the classroom. There is an overwhelming shortage of manpower at most schools,” she said. 

January survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association reported that nearly 2,000 teacher positions remained unfilled and more than 3,000 vacancies were filled by people who don’t meet standard teacher requirements.  

Pace questioned whether the workload might discourage librarians from making purchases and keeping their shelves stocked, if every new book means dealing with burdensome reporting requirements. 

While Pingerelli admitted HB2439 could benefit from amendments, it was passed on a party-line vote and will move towards the Senate floor for debate. 

Parental access to classrooms

The committee also opened up every Arizona classroom door to parents, whether their child attends the school or not, as long as they are considering enrolling them. Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said she introduced House Bill 2025 after a constituent told her she was prevented from touring potential middle school special education programs for her daughter. 

“As a parent of special needs children, I understand how important it is to see whether or not a classroom is going to be a good fit for the child,” she said. 

The bill requires schools to develop visitation, tour and observation policies and publicly post the processes on their website. Policy conditions like when, how many people or how often they may visit are left up to administrators. 

Karla Phillips-Krivickas is the mother who reached out to Udall after her request to tour middle school special education classrooms was repeatedly denied at one school, despite the Arizona Department of Special Education Director saying the school’s reasoning that it would constitute a FERPA violation was incorrect. 

The bill’s language doesn’t specify visits only to special education classrooms. 

“Every school is different, some are small, some are big, so how they construct their classrooms is very different,” Phillips-Krivickas explained, adding that most special needs children spend a lot of time in general education classrooms. 

A data review from The National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 60% of students with disabilities spent more than 80% of their time in general education classes from 2009 through 2019. 

Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, expressed concern that opening up access to special education classes could be detrimental for some students. She said that her friend is a special education teacher and several of her students are particularly emotional and have had violent reactions before. 

And Marsh added that some general education classes have difficulty staying on track at the best of times. 

“There are some classes where a pin dropping two miles away is a distraction,” she said. 

Udall responded that different classrooms would necessitate different policy applications, and the bill allows for that. It includes an exemption for situations in which visits might risk the health or safety of students and staff, and also allows schools to set their own policy around the visits. Still, it’s important for parents to be able to examine the conditions their children will be in day in and day out, she reiterated. 

“(It’s) a really scary thing to ask me to put my non-verbal daughter in a classroom and to never ever be able to see it and see what’s going on. Now granted, I think this is something that should be available to all parents, that’s why the bill is not specifically just for special education, but there definitely have to be nuanced policies for each school,” she said. 

HB2025 was approved almost unanimously, with only one dissenting vote. Two of those who voted for it expressed reservations about the bill, but voted to send it to the full Senate for further consideration.

Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.

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