Alaskan School Board Overturns Decision on Removing Books

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

As we reported late last month, the Mat-Su School District in Alaska voted to remove five classic books from curriculum and classroom use:  Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. All were pulled due to their depiction of sexual situations, with Angelou’s title also being noted as “anti-white.” Five out of seven board members voted for the removal of those books from curriculum, while two — the only two women on the board — voted against it.

Following a national outcry, six of the school’s seven board members voted last week to reinstall access to those books in their high school classrooms.

The single board member to vote against the change was Ryan Ponder, who has a history of seeking book removal and censorship of materials taught in literature classes. In a statement reported by CNN following the reversal of the decision, Ponder doubles down on insisting that the books were never pulled or made inaccessible to students.

“The school board did not ban the books, did not preclude their use by teachers and did not remove the books from school libraries,” he said. “The narrative that has been put out there is not the accurate narrative.”

Except, that is exactly how the decision was stated. Libraries would make those books available, but classrooms could not use those books nor could teachers teach them as part of curriculum.  If the narrative is incorrect, as Ponder claims, then it stands to reason that he would have voted in favor of reversing the decision, given that it was a meaningless exercise of board power with no real ramifications.

It’s the Mat-Su School Board which decides the course of study for the high schools within the district, with superintendents of each school responsible for ensuring the instruction is unified. Instructional materials are periodically evaluated, and this year’s evaluation included upper-level English electives. English I and English II courses in the district have a prescribed reading list, while elective courses do not. By removing these titles from curriculum—be they required reading or supplementary—the board moves closer toward determining a reading list for these upper level, elective classes.

When news of the books being pulled from curriculum circulated, an outpouring of support for students and teachers of the Mat-Su district emerged. The American Civil Liberties Union spoke up, and the band Portugal. The Man—Alaskan natives—said they’d be willing to send copies of those books to students in the district.

Before voting in favor of rescinding the ban, board member Jim Hart— like Ponder, supported by the Alaska Republican Party and endorsed by the Christian, pro-life organization the Alaska Family Council—read a passage from I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. As CNN reports, he noted that “When you talk about sexual content […] it really does come down to propriety so I wanted to read that for the record so people can know what we’re talking about.”

The reading led Monica Goyette, the district’s superintendent, to respond loudly to Hart that she was deeply offended by what he said.

“”That is not sexual content,” she said. “That is rape of a child. A teacher would have prefaced that section by talking about rape as a child. It should be read as a child being raped.”

This topic will be revisited in the coming school year, so chances are, this reversal may be far from permanent. It’s likely more books will be put under the microscope of politically-backed board members eager to keep their endorsements at the expense of young people working on their educations.