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Those arguments over school book bans may influence midterm elections

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Vida Rahman knows what it's like to be concerned about what our kids are reading at school.

VIDA RAHMAN: He was in middle school, so it was a book that they were going to have - you know, I think they had, like, five books...

CHANG: This was a few years back. Her oldest son is now in high school, but, at the time, she was worried because the book he was reading as a sixth-grader dealt with some pretty heavy stuff, like the main character's parents dying in a car crash.

RAHMAN: I think it might have been "Outsiders."

CHANG: "The Outsiders" by S.E. Hinton - a coming-of-age story involving two rival gangs in Tulsa, Okla. Well, Rahman wasn't familiar with it, so she reached out to the school. She wanted to talk with someone about why it was included on the book list. And her son's librarian called her back.

RAHMAN: She explained the process to me, you know, what the book was about. And at the end of that conversation, I said, OK, no problem. I don't have a problem with my child reading this book. You know, I'll be asking him questions. We will talk about it and discuss it. And it ended up not being a problem.

CHANG: Rahman didn't think much more about the whole experience until November of last year, when book lists became the No. 1 topic at Williamson County School District board meetings. That's her children's district in Tennessee, just south of Nashville. Parents showed up to read excerpts from books found in school libraries. Many had sexual language or references to abuse, but parent groups were also pushing to remove titles that dealt with the history of slavery and racism.

RAHMAN: That's what's so frustrating. It's frustrating when people are trying to take these things out and say that it doesn't - you know, my kid doesn't need to hear that.

CHANG: As a Black parent, Rahman was very concerned to see books like "Ruby Bridges Goes To School" and one about Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington included on banned request lists sent to district officials. The timing of it all also felt strange to her.

RAHMAN: These were the same faces, same people who were upset about the masking guidelines of the school.

CHANG: Rahman belongs to a group called One WillCo that has been pushing back against these requests. And while the board has not banned all of these books, these complaints have kept them really busy. It's remained a primary topic of debate and conversation for months, which Rahman says takes the focus away from more pressing issues, like reports her group has received about students being called the N-word at school, Black boys receiving a disproportionate rate of discipline and other curriculum concerns about how Southern racial history is being taught.

RAHMAN: I can't quit. I'm not cut from the quitting cloth. I have to persist. I have to still be there. I have a ninth-grader and a sixth-grader. I'm vested in this community, and I will be actively making sure that they are doing things to help students of color and to make them feel equal, just as every other student here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHANG: Of course, what's happening in Williamson County, Tenn., is not an isolated incident, and the debates happening in school boards throughout the country have had real political consequences, like during last year's gubernatorial election in Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

LAURA MURPHY: As a parent, it's tough to catch everything. So when my son showed me his reading assignment, my heart sunk. It was some of the most explicit material you can imagine.

CHANG: That is an ad from then-candidate Glenn Youngkin, a Republican who was attacking his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe.

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MURPHY: He doesn't think parents should have a say.

CHANG: These school issues were front and center for that election, and Youngkin came out on top. He's now governor of Virginia. And now, with midterms coming up in the fall, we might be seeing more and more of this.

The Atlantic writer Elizabeth Bruenig half-jokingly called this moment the Kinderreferenda, and she's written about why these arguments surrounding the classroom have been such a lightning rod for political debate. She spoke with my co-host, Ari Shapiro, about that.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Why do you think we see this fervor, whether it is over masks and home schooling or over critical race theory or over books that are in libraries on reading lists? Why are we constantly seeing these battles in schools and school board meetings and PTA meetings?

ELIZABETH BRUENIG: I think in the United States, because we're a liberal democracy, we have more or less decided that there are, you know, quite a few subjects, and these are the most important subjects to people in a lot of cases, but they regard religion. They regard sort of matters of ultimate concern - the most important, private, personal beliefs. We're going to leave those out of politics and leave them up for the individual to decide what to do in those cases.

But with children and what to teach children in public schools, which are run by the state - they are state-run and organized - it becomes impossible not to give them information or, in some sense, give them direction. And so schools become places where adults fight about these questions because we don't have many other opportunities to just publicly fight about these things. And I think people relish it to some degree. I mean, obviously, the people going to these town halls or, you know, getting into punditry over this are making quite a bit of hay out of it.

SHAPIRO: There's obviously a strong political element to this. These debates helped a Republican win the governor's office in Virginia. How much do you think these controversies are connected to the upcoming midterm elections?

BRUENIG: I think that they are likely to have an effect on the upcoming midterms. You mentioned Youngkin's win in Virginia, that surprise gubernatorial win in '21. I would expect that these debates would have a very similar effect on the midterms. I think that they are highly emotive. They involve children, everyone's children, the most important thing in their lives.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that's why these debates are happening? I mean, are politicians and their interests ginning up these debates in order to get a leg up for the election?

BRUENIG: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think that they find it - I think these are ready-made, pre-existing debates that, you know, sort of exist due to these - you know, the structural landscape of American politics, this sort of way that liberal democracy works. And then I think politicians find it helpful to provoke them, especially when you have a midterm election like this where you have, you know, sort of Democrats with unified control. The federal government, Republicans are very strong against them. They look like they're going to have a pretty good go of things in the midterms, and they want to make that as strong of a sweep as they can. And so I think they are doing everything they can to kind of provoke these pre-existing tensions. Yeah, absolutely.

SHAPIRO: This may be an impossible question to answer, but do you think that most of these arguments are in good faith?

BRUENIG: A lot of people who get into these arguments genuinely believe their grievances, and they have come to genuinely feel that the emotional pitch at which these arguments are had is the appropriate emotional pitch. You know, do I still disagree with them in many cases? Yeah, absolutely. And do I feel that they, you know, are perhaps participating in something that's a bit more organized (laughter) than, you know, and inorganic than they might suggest? Yes.

SHAPIRO: Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer for The Atlantic. Thanks a lot.

BRUENIG: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAFT PUNK'S "DEREZZED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.