Debate over book bans in classrooms highlights limitations of school trustees' role
Trustee candidate wants school board to be allowed to set parameters for what's appropriate in class
A polarizing debate over banning books in schools in Chilliwack, B.C., has highlighted the lack of control that elected school boards have over classroom curriculum — even as some people running to be trustees promise to make changes to what children are being taught.
In late August, several Chilliwack Board of Education trustees spoke out against books in local school libraries, saying they contain inappropriate sexual content for children and youth.
Other trustees have defended the books, resulting in heated debates within the community.
One of the books that caught the attention of Chilliwack school trustee Heather Maahs is All Boys Aren't Blue, a coming-of-age story about a queer person of colour.
Maahs believes the material is too explicit. She says she wants to bring forward a policy change that allows the board to set parameters around what is appropriate in school.
"We are now in the situation where books of, I'm going to call them a pornographic nature, are now in our schools — elementary, middle and high school, and the board now has no parameters setting what is or isn't appropriate for students," Maahs said.
Fellow trustee Willow Reichelt says that's not realistic.
"It's not a concept that makes any sense to anyone who actually understands how education works," she said.
She says All Boys Aren't Blue is available in one high school library and the book is appropriate for older students.
"I can't believe that suddenly in 2022 we're talking about book banning."
Culture wars in the classroom
Both Maahs and Reichelt are running for election to the Chilliwack school board on Oct. 15.
So, too, are three candidates endorsed by ParentsVoice B.C., a new political organization urging parents to "Take Back Our Schools" and hand more control of classroom curriculums over to local communities.
But experts point out those goals are at odds with what elected school boards and trustees can actually accomplish in B.C.
Reichelt points out the province sets the curriculum, and the responsibility for what is taught in classrooms is handed over to educators who are in the best position to know what learning resources are needed to convey the curriculum.
Katie Bartel, chair of the Chilliwack District Parent Advisory Council, calls the debate over books "grandstanding," saying it distracts from more pressing issues that are in the board's control.
"Approving learning resources or books within the school system is just not something that's attainable by trustees," she said. "We're kind of tired of this conversation."
She also notes that there is a process in place for members of the community who are concerned about a book or other piece of learning material. In Chilliwack, complaints go to a reconsideration committee.
Bartel says there have been no formal complaints about this specific book. The formal process was last used in 2018, she said.
What do school trustees do?
Carolyn Broady of the B.C. School Trustees Association says a "trustee would not have the ability to ask to have a book removed from the school library."
She notes a Supreme Court of Canada ruling that said the Surrey school board's decision to ban books back in 1997 went against provincial legislation that states the public school system is secular and non-sectarian.
Charles Ungerleider, a professor emeritus in the University of British Columbia's faculty of education, former B.C. deputy minister of education and former Vancouver school trustee, says school boards act as corporate boards that oversee one employee — the district superintendent. The job of a trustee, he says, is to focus on big-picture issues such as overseeing budgets.
"A member of the board of Starbucks would not be telling somebody ... how much milk to put in a latte," he said.
Jason Ellis, an associate professor in UBC's faculty of education, says there is an old bromide that says the best boards are relatively hands-off with trustees and are instead "there to make sure things are running the way they're supposed to be running."
Candidates may not feel that way, he says, perhaps because they look south to U.S. school boards, which generally have more autonomy than those in B.C.
Broady says it's important for voters to understand what trustees do and where lines are drawn.
"Sometimes people run on platforms that they believe where they can make change and the School Act quite limits what people can do once they are elected to a board," Broady said.
"I would encourage people to look closely at platforms, to ask questions just to make sure that the candidates that are running understand the roles and responsibilities they have, but also the limitations."
With files from Christina Jung and The Early Edition