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The state Senate Education committee on Wednesday voted to advance a bill that its sponsor, Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) says would let parents have a say in whether their children can have access to “sexually explicit content” in schools. But Sen. Lindsey Williams, (D-Allegheny) called the bill “a book ban in violation of the First Amendment,” and said it was part of a larger GOP attack on public education.
Senate Bill 7 would “make parents aware of the sexually explicit content in their child’s school and give them the ability to limit their own child’s access to such content,” Aument said in a press release following the party line vote on Wednesday.
The bill would require schools to identify sexually explicit content in school curriculum, materials, and books, create an opt-in policy to notify parents of the sexually explicit content by including a list of the book titles on the form, allow parents to review the materials, and require parents to give direct consent for their children to be provided or have access to sexually explicit content.
Aument insisted during the hearing and in the release after the vote that SB 7 was not a book ban.
“Public school should not be a forum for indoctrination,” state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) said at the hearing on Tuesday. He dismissed concerns that the measure amounted to a book ban, calling it a “dog whistle, red herring argument.”
But Sharon Ward, senior policy advisor for the nonprofit Education Law Center testified that her organization believes SB 7 is “a book ban, plain and simple. It will permit school entities to purge book collections based on the most limited view of what is appropriate and will allow a single parent or a small group of parents to determine what books are available to all children.”
The bill would violate students’ free speech rights, Ward added, and explicitly permits school entities to remove books and materials preemptively. Districts would have to identify materials that have sexually explicit content or subjects.
“The Education Law Center agrees that reading materials should be reviewed by qualified adults for age relevance and appropriateness,” Ward said, “a process that school districts already follow … with the oversight of trained educators and school librarians.”
Ward added that similar restrictions on reading materials tended to exclude works by LGBTQ people and people of color. “These policies purport to limit sexualized content, but are applied primarily to books featuring these marginalized populations,” she said. “Such targeted book bans are what we would expect from the removal process of Senate Bill 7, and this would violate the First Amendment.”
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Williams, said in a statement after the vote that SB 7 “is part of the plan to destroy public education, in direct violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution. So I am a firm No today, I was a No last time we ran this bill, and I will be a No for every step this Committee takes towards dismantling public education.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate for consideration.
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