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WA Senate passes legislation pushing back on book bans

Democrats are hoping the bill will slow efforts to ban books about LGBTQ+ people and people of color.

The walkway in between library shelves has various types of books.
Washington Senate Democrats on Thursday passed a bill meant to slow efforts to ban books in school classrooms and libraries. (Finn Wendt/Cascadia Daily News)
By Grace Deng Washington State Standard

Washington Senate Democrats on Thursday, Feb. 22 passed a bill meant to slow efforts to ban books in school classrooms and libraries. 

The legislation won approval on a party-line vote, 29-20. Under it, school districts, charter schools and certain tribal schools cannot ban instructional materials solely because they focus on protected classes, such as people of color and LGBTQ+ people. 

The bill already passed the House. The Senate’s amended version must clear the House again and be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee before becoming law. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver and chief sponsor of the House bill, said she’s “pleased with the version passed by the Senate” and will ask the House to concur with the changes. 

“Every child deserves to encounter characters and stories that resonate with their own experiences, their own background and identity,” said Sen. T’wina Nobles, D-Fircrest, the only Black woman in the state Senate. 

State law already prohibits discrimination in public schools on the basis of sex, race and other protected classes. But this bill specifies that final decisions on book approval cannot be reconsidered for another three years, an attempt to ensure these decisions are more permanent. 

The bill would also block book challenges from people who aren’t parents or direct guardians of a child in a school district. And it calls on districts to recruit a diverse pool of parents for their instructional materials committees, which are appointed by school boards to consider complaints and help direct instructional content. 

Passage of the bill comes as book bans in public schools and libraries across the country are increasing, fueled largely by efforts from conservative activists to ban books about LGBTQ+ people and people of color. 

Nationwide, there were 3,363 public school book bans during the 2022-2023 school year recorded by free speech group PEN America, compared to 2,532 recorded in the school year before. While the number of successfully banned books in Washington is far smaller than in Republican strongholds like Texas and Florida, the state is still seeing challenges to books rise in recent years. 

‘Books save lives’

As lawmakers debated the legislation on the Senate floor Thursday, Republicans decried loss of local control over school board decisions and said the bill discouraged community participation in public schools. 

“The Legislature is moving school boards towards extinction,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. Rivers and other Republicans emphasized that every school district is different and has different values.

Republicans also veered into conversations about pornography. Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn, brought up a controversial 2021 sex education bill and blasted a book called “It’s Perfectly Normal,” a frequently-banned and award-winning sex education book for pre-teens.

But Democrats said the bill protects marginalized students’ access to stories that reflect their own. Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, said that while school districts’ values might differ, LGBTQ+ students exist in every district. 

“Books save lives,” said Randall, one of the first openly LGBTQ+ women in the Senate. 

Randall also referenced Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma who recently died after a fight at school. Bullies started harassing Benedict over their gender identity in earnest during the 2023 school year, shortly after Oklahoma passed a law requiring public school students to use bathrooms matching the sex on their birth certificates, Benedict’s mother told The Independent

“It is so important that we stand up and stand alongside the young people who may not feel welcomed in their classrooms or in their school districts or in their communities, but find a welcoming space in a book that reflects them for who they are,” Randall said. 

Republican amendments

Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham, introduced an amendment to block schools from approving sexually explicit textbooks and other materials. 

“These pornographic books and novels have crept into our schools and libraries,” McCune said. “My amendment just says schools cannot have printed, visual material of dirty sexual talk.” 

“This amendment is not banning books,” McCune said. “Books will still be printed.” 

McCune asked if he could read the summary of one of the “quite graphic and lewd” young adult novels featuring LGBTQ+ youth that were mentioned by a librarian in a committee hearing. Des Moines Democrat Sen. Karen Keiser, presiding over the floor, said she was “a little concerned about that” and did not allow McCune to read it.  

Republicans also introduced amendments that would allow school boards to appeal superintendent decisions on books and remove the three-year waiting period before a book can be challenged again. The Senate did not adopt any amendments Republicans proposed.

Nobles, a University Place School Board member, said the amendments would create unnecessary processes and that three years is standard procedure. 

“To paraphrase ‘The Real Slim Shady,’ will the real school board members please stand up?” Nobles said, making a show of looking around to emphasize her credentials. “I think it’s just me.” 

Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, suggested including grandparents in the list of people who can challenge a book. 

Democrats rejected the idea. 

Sen. Yasmin Trudeau, D-Tacoma, teared up on the Senate floor, telling the story of her own complicated relationship with one of her parents and said she would never want one of her parents to be involved in her child’s education. Sen. Noel Frame, D-Seattle, said giving grandparents the right to challenge books would “violate my rights as a parent.” 

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