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The People Behind BookmarkED Are Behind Book Bans in Texas–One Is a School Administrator

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.

At the end of August, we broke a story about the development of an app meant to “assist” schools in determining whether or not books within their libraries are appropriate materials. Founded by Steve Wandler, who works in the education technology space, BookmarkED aims to “empower parents to personalize school libraries.” The purpose is to ensure that parents get to decide the “individual literary journey for their children, based on their personal values and interests,” while teachers and librarians can keep “confidently recommending and providing more personalized books to their students, knowing precisely the learning outcomes they will achieve.” As a bonus, the technology will help libraries “simply and efficiently navigate the ever-changing challenged books landscape.”

BookmarkED’s website states the idea was conceptualized by a Texas superintendent. The app, BookmarkED, was developed in Texas by an educational technologist, and when contacted, the team behind the app stated the following:

In our conversations with school districts, we have heard that many do not have a centralized, up-to-date source for data on challenged books. While we cannot divulge the exact sources of all our data, we can say that we gather data from a variety of credible sources every day, including school district sources and non-profit datasets. This enables school districts and librarians to have access to this data in real-time on a state and national level.

We now know who the Texas superintendent is and more, we know why and how this app has grown legs since its development just a few short months ago.

Since August, the BookmarkED team has been busy readying their product for launch. In the wake of an ongoing legal battle over the Texas READER Act, which would allow wide book removal across state schools and require age ratings on materials by publishers–currently, the enjoinment in the law has been overturned, meaning that the law is in effect–the app is gearing up to make the lives of library workers much easier by eliminating their need to review titles. The app can do it for them!

BookmarkED made an appearance at the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) the first week of October:

Founder Steve Wandler testified before the Texas Senate earlier this year in support of a bill being pursued. SB 13 aimed to create local advisory committees, primarily composed of local parents, who would be given the power to determine which books could and could not be in the district libraries. The goal was to legislate the “parental rights” movement. As of writing, the bill is still listed as “in committee,” but the status is unclear going forward, since much of what SB 13 hoped to accomplish is or will be achievable through the READER Act.

At the 4:27:00 mark, you can listen to Wandler talk about why this proposed bill is one he supports. He reads through the same talking points as the company’s, noting that his app will make it easier on districts since they will no longer need to go through the “arduous” work of reviewing titles.

“Parental engagement is crucial to improving outcomes, and in this case literacy, in Texas. [This] empowers parental access and mandates accountability with school districts.” He then notes that he’s “engaged” with 400,000 students across the state in order to help parents control library books. How “engaging” with students helps parents remains unclear, though one thing is clear, Wandler is concerned about the lack of financial incentives in the bill to make technology like his easy to implement in the schools. Recall that BookmarkED imports a library catalog then compares it to banned book lists across the state and country. Where they get those lists is proprietary information, but given there is only one resource that comprehensively tracks every book ban, it’s hard not to wonder if data is simply being scraped.

At the 4:31 mark in the testimony, Wandler mentions working with a Texas superintendent. In the initial reporting of this story, it was unclear who the superintendent was but now, it’s clear.

Meet Jason Cochran, the Superintendent of Krum Independent School District. Not only is Cochran a Superintendent for the Denton County district–which has a 40% minority enrollment and nearly a quarter of students are economically disadvantaged–he’s listed as one of the BookmarkED owners. Cochran is new to the job too, as the position was advertised through TASB in November 2021. He served on the legislative committee for the Texas Rural Eduction Association this yer.

Krum ISD saw an uproar from students late last school year after a popular principal resigned. This came after his contract was not renewed by the district, and as one local parent stated, that principal was a rare voice in standing up against others in administration who held secret meetings and created policies to benefit their own kids.

Krum ISD is among the districts, too, that does not prohibit corporal punishment of students.

It seems pretty convenient to be part of the group pushing the “parental rights” rhetoric at the state level to leverage your company and then to take advantage of that same legislation to strip books from your district and profit from the tool used to do the banning.