Expansion of Tennessee school library law puts burden on teachers

On a large colorful rug, schoolchildren sit cross-legged. Others lay on their stomachs. All were perusing words and stories from books such as Pete the Cat, Time for Breakfast, and The Tiny Seed.

It’s reading time in the Tahna White Kindergarten classroom.

Her self-funded library collection occupies a happy and compelling corner of the teaching spaces at Lawrence K-8 School in Memphis. A few minutes ago, her students were browsing boxes of blue, purple and green books by subject, including llamas, plants, feelings and stories by Eric Carle.

“They absolutely love reading these books,” says White, who has a master’s degree in language and literacy and has amassed about 500 children’s books over a 20-year teaching career.

Still, White is prepared to box the books home if the Memphis-Shelby County School orders her to catalog every book under a new state law targeting school libraries.

“The task is going to be huge, and I don’t know when I’ll have time to do it myself,” she said. “My parents are almost always working, so they’re unlikely to have time to volunteer and help.”

Teachers and school leaders in Tennessee are trying to figure out how to meet recent state guidance on the 2022 library law. The regulation requires public schools to review the “age appropriateness” of their library materials and publish a full list for parents to review online.

Republican Gov. Bill Lee said the goal is to “ensure parents know what materials are available to students in their libraries.”

But the Aug. 11 memo to district leaders said that under the law, library collections are not limited to materials found in traditional school libraries. It also includes “material kept in teachers’ classrooms,” wrote Christie Ballard, general counsel for the state Department of Education.

Soon after, several school systems, including the larger districts of Chattanooga and Murfreesboro, instructed their teachers to begin categorizing their classroom collections by title and author, along with a brief description of each book — just at the start of the new school year.

“So most teachers have hundreds of books,” said third-grade teacher Sydney Rawls, whose video went viral on TikTok as she spent a Saturday in Murfrees, south of Nashville The Mitchell-Neilson School in Borough creates an inventory book by book.

Rawls describes how her students beg to read from her collection after completing a test or assignment, “I have to say no, you can’t, because I don’t have a chance to sort through all of them and write them all down. “

For White and other educators who may be faced with the same task, the answer may simply be to delete books they have personally curated for their classrooms. This is an option some teachers have discussed on social media.

Tahna White is surrounded by her personal library collection in her second-grade classroom at Lawrence K-8 School in Memphis.

Tennessee has reading problems

Removing reading material to comply with state law would be an ironic twist for a state that has been trying to help its children become better readers for years.

In 2019, only one-third of Tennessee fourth-graders achieved proficient reading scores on the latest national test conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the National Report Card.

In Memphis, home to the state’s largest district, nearly 80 percent of students do not reach grade level.

The same legislature that passed the governor’s library proposal, known as the Age-appropriate Materials Act, approved a series of measures the previous year aimed at improving student literacy.

As a result, all K-12 schools have adopted phonetic-based reading instruction, and universities have revised their training for aspiring teachers accordingly. Also, starting this school year, a controversial new law has increased the likelihood that schools will block students deemed not proficient in reading at the end of third grade.

The prospect of children not having access to books because of teachers’ reluctance to catalog their collections is something the governor and the law’s two Republican sponsors — Sen. Jack Johnson and Rep. William Lambers — aren’t talking about.

A man in a suit speaks into a microphone behind the podium, surrounded by four men in suits.

Gov. Bill Lee, flanked by Republican legislative leaders, speaks during a news conference at the end of the 2021 session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Courtesy of Tennessee

No one answered questions from Chalkbeat or accepted interview requests.

Others involved in the development of library law said they were surprised by New York State’s broad interpretation of what constitutes a school library.

“We don’t think that’s the legislative intent,” said Dale Lynch, who leads the state’s group of superintendents.

“It obviously means a lot of work for teachers.”

Lindsey Kimery, former president of the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, said the governor’s office director and policy advisor never mentioned classroom collections when discussing legislation with representatives of her organization earlier this year.

“That’s exactly the kind of thing we’re afraid of,” she said of the expanded scope of the law. “Ultimately, this creates another barrier to easy access to books for students who can access things like video games or cell phones without issue.”

State Rep. Sam McKenzie, who serves on the House Education Committee, doesn’t recall discussing classroom book collections during debates over the legislation.

Knoxville Democrats plan to introduce their own legislation next year to clarify that library laws do not apply to classrooms.

“This is a classic example of government overreach,” he said. “We need to make way and let our teachers teach.”

Book ban heightens tensions

This past school year, Tennessee was already in the national spotlight for several high-profile book bans.

Lawmakers then passed several bills aimed at limiting the kinds of books students could read. In addition to the governor’s library review law, a measure allows state textbook boards to overrule local school board decisions and remove material deemed “inappropriate for a student’s age or maturity” from school libraries across the state.

Tennessee was also one of the first states to enact a law designed to limit classroom discussions about the legacy of slavery, racism and white privilege.

“What drives the whole debate is the push to get rid of books about race, gender and gender,” said JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators at Tennessee.

Display colorful picture books, including some on black history.

Youngrae Kim for Chalkbeat

But fourth-grade teacher Caroline Marino worries that classic books will be pushed out of classrooms based on educators’ reaction to the state’s definition of school libraries.

“Somehow, this law has gone too far,” said Marino, who teaches in Williamson County, south of Nashville, and sits on the Tennessee Professional Educators Board of Directors.

“It’s not that Huckleberry Finn ends up in the trash; it’s that Huckleberry Finn ends up in a box somewhere,” she said.

Most regions are exploring their options

Marino’s Williamson County school is still figuring out how to comply with the law and new guidelines, as are most school systems in Tennessee.

“Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has complied with new laws based on the canonical definition of school libraries,” spokesman Sean Brested said, noting district leaders are working on a plan to address the broader interpretation.

“We will seek to do this to minimise any burden on teachers who are rightfully focused on providing academic guidance and support to students,” he added.

This could mean giving teachers a tool to create their class favorites list without manual input. With the right resources, they can automatically fill in the title, author, and description by simply scanning the barcode on each book.

But such tools are not cheap. Kimery, who coordinates library services for Nashville schools, sets the price for a system at $64,000 a year.

Others, like Williamson County’s Marino, said the state should pay teachers a stipend for any extra work required by law.

Fiscal analysts in the legislature didn’t see that potential cost when they studied the governor’s proposal. The bill’s fiscal report said schools and districts “will be able to comply with the proposed legislation in the normal course of business using existing resources; therefore, any financial impact to state or local governments is estimated to be insignificant.”

In Memphis, White is ready to pack her books if her district doesn’t come up with a viable plan to comply with the law. But for now, she’s using them every day to help her students read, which is considered a foundation for learning and success in all subject areas.

“Our goal is to create lifelong readers,” White said, “but you can’t do that without books.”

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior reporter covering Chalkbeat Tennessee’s State Capitol.contact her maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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