As both a parent of two young children in Virginia's public school system and a professor of English, I strongly oppose SB656 and the model policies proposed to allow parents to opt-out of "sexually explicit content."
Regulations that are presented as parental rights legislation do not actually give parents any more rights: after all, unless we choose to isolate our children from peers and media and art, our children are going to be exposed to materials related to sex. What this does is create a two-tier education system, one in which some children are introduced to a vast array of literature and human experiences, and another in which children are relegated to less rigorous, less authentic, less representative materials selected by non-experts. Let's be clear here: the children in the second group will still have access to sexually explicit materials, through their peers and the Internet, but without the guidance of a trained educator. That is a terrifying prospect.
We also have to consider why we teach literature to children. The Virginia English Standards of Learning expect students to "understand that literature is universal and influenced by different cultures and eras." Literature is universal, and we can best see its universality when we explore its themes in specific contexts. If parents who object to "sexually explicit materials" are choosing the texts for their children, there's a large probability that their children will not be exposed to different cultures. Looking at the texts that have been targeted as sexually explicit, I worry that writings by Black, Latino, and LGBT authors will be removed from some children's curriculums, preventing them from truly understanding that "literature is universal and influenced by different cultures and eras."
Despite the definitions included in SB656, the label of "sexually explicit" is subjective and expansive enough to eliminate a variety of critical texts in the literary canon. Censoring literature that describes sexual excitement or sexual conduct would eliminate much of William Shakespeare's plays (he loves an erection pun; sexual conduct is integral to the plot of Romeo & Juliet). Calypso essentially makes Odysseus her sexual slave in Homer's The Odyssey. These classics, among others, are threatened by this bill. However, I have a feeling that these aren't the texts that will be targeted by these model policies.
Instead, it's books with LGBT themes, like Gender Queer, that will continue to be targeted. Books that let kids see themselves. As the Trevor Project explains, "LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers"... and it's not because they are queer. Rather, queer youth face rampant homophobia at home, in their communities and schools. Books that uplift and normalize diverse sexual and gender expression can save lives. And yet, how many parents will prevent their kids from reading these books at school, not knowing that their kids are queer and afraid (or even more insidiously, knowing but not caring)? As educators, we have a responsibility to help our students see themselves as whole, even if their parents don't. Books with queer characters and queer themes also help non-queer kids be kinder and more empathetic, reducing the stigma and hopefully reducing the chances of suicide and early death for their queer peers.
Recently, school board members in Virginia have also attacked books about the sexual abuse of children, like Toni Morrison's Bluest Eye, which frankly depicts the devastation of incestuous child sex abuse. But eliminating these themes from the curriculum doesn't help prevent CSA. The sad reality is that, according to the CDC, "about 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys in the United States experience child sexual abuse." We don't teach literature to ignore social problems. In the words of the Virginia English Standards, we teach it so that students can "analyze the cultural or social function of a literary text," "identify the problem and solution," and "recognize major themes and issues related to religious diversity; political struggles; ethnic and cultural mores and traditions; and individual rights, gender equity, and civil rights." By allowing two-tier public schooling, we are underestimating our children's potential to address, analyze, and solve social problems. And we are undercutting our own expressed values in teaching literature.
The model policies proposed allow parents to deny their children this critical, humanizing education. The purpose of public education isn't just to benefit individual children but to benefit society, the public. We all need the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and teachers to understand the diversity and the problems of the world they'll be stewarding. And we need to trust experts in education to prepare them for this role, for the safety of our children and the future of our communities.