California lawmakers OK bill to fine school boards that ban books over race, LGBTQ+ issues

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The California Legislature approved a bill on Thursday that would fine school boards that ban textbooks based on their inclusion of LGBTQ+ and race lessons — an attempt to halt escalating culture wars playing out in the liberal state’s right-leaning enclaves.

The legislation, AB 1078, strengthens the state’s enforcement of laws that require diverse and inclusive education, and appears sure to get the signature of Gov. Gavin Newsom. The governor helped craft the legislation after a conservative Temecula school board rejected a lesson featuring slain gay rights icon and San Francisco politician Harvey Milk.

The bill comes after local school boards backed by conservative majorities have taken up textbooks and gender identity issues, echoing national talking points about an alleged infringement of “parental rights.”

“California is the true freedom state: a place where families — not political fanatics — have the freedom to decide what’s right for them,” Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement Thursday. “All students deserve the freedom to read and learn about the truth, the world and themselves.”

The bill explicitly requires that school boards representing the state’s 1,000-plus districts approve textbooks that “accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society,” and creates a process for county superintendents — and the state — to intervene if they fail to do so.

Districts that fail to comply will face a “fiscal penalty” that will decrease their state funding by impacting local school funding formulas.

“This bill is government blackmail to our locals,” said Assemblymember Devon Mathis (R-Visalia), who voted against AB 1078.

The California School Boards Association opposed the bill, calling it “draconian and duplicative” since the state has long had laws requiring lessons on LGBTQ+ history and ethnic studies.

The bill sets a “troubling precedent” for the state to leverage funding in order to punish school boards, CSBA said, and will lead to “an unintended impact on the district’s programs, its employees and students.”

The move is a rare interference by state officials in California, which has historically leaned on “local control” when it comes to schools. But Assemblymember Corey Jackson (D-Perris) said it’s necessary to protect children from discrimination.

“It will ensure that California pushes back against the disgusting practice of engaging in culture wars and stepping on the backs of vulnerable populations for political gains,” Jackson said on the Assembly floor on Thursday.

Jackson said the bill “has nothing to do with local control,” and that school boards are still in charge of many curriculum decisions but now the state has more power to ensure accountability.

In debates about the bill in the Capitol in Sacramento, Republicans said they were not aiming to discriminate but were concerned about “age appropriate” textbooks, especially when it comes to sex education.

State Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove) voted against AB 1078 and pointed to a case in Orange County, where the district eliminated the use of a digital library after a parent complained about a book called “A Polar Bear In Love.” In the Japanese book series, an older male polar bear tells a younger male seal he wants to marry him “when you grow up.”

Democrats cast doubt on claims of concern about age appropriate materials and said parents still can control what their children read, accusing Republicans instead of reaching for political gain by way of school boards.

“Too many times, the decisions on whether to ban books are driven by ideology — are driven by Qanon chat rooms and not by fact,” said state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine) who voted for the bill. “It’s under this guise of obscenity or protecting our children but that is not how we’ve seen it play out.”

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