WASHINGTON — The Department of Education last week quietly designated a new official to coordinate the Biden administration’s response to book bans cropping up around the country, making good on a months-old pledge.
But the delay in finalizing the move, and the relatively limited powers of the position, illustrates the reality of the Biden administration’s challenge on the education culture wars: Even as they see a political opportunity to take on the conservative “parents’ rights” movement, the options for the federal government to engage are limited and themselves politically fraught.
“At the end of the day, they are pretty constrained,” said Jon Valant, a director on education policy at the left-leaning think tank the Brookings Institution. “So when it comes to a lot of the core subjects of these disputes, which tend to be over curriculum, the federal government is very limited.”
The Biden administration announced it would appoint a coordinator at the Department of Education to investigate book bans, especially those targeting LGBTQ+ individuals and other protected groups, as part of its Pride Month celebration in early June.
“Book bans may violate the federal civil rights laws when they target LGBTQ students or students of color and create hostile classroom environments,” President Biden said in remarks at the time.
The announcement came amid months of tough talk from Biden and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona over the so-called parents’ rights movement, a conservative-led campaign that largely targets school policies that promote diversity and equity or inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. Those efforts often include calls to restrict student access to books, many of which have LGBTQ+ or racial themes and some of which include sexual material.
Conservatives have been trying to flip school boards and pushing a suite of policies limiting how LGBTQ+ and racial topics can be discussed in schools. The issue has been at the forefront of the Republican presidential primary; candidate Ron DeSantis has pushed through many such policies as governor of Florida. PEN America, a group that tracks book bans and defines them expansively, calculated more than 2,500 instances of school book restrictions affecting more than 1,600 titles from 2021-2022, with roughly 40 percent having LGTBQ+ themes and 40 percent having significant characters of color.
“I won’t sit idly when some try to attack our schools or privatize education,” Cardona told Politico in March, referring to the conservative schools movement. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, meanwhile, have made criticism of book bans a staple of their stump speeches at fund-raisers and events this year.
But relatively little action has followed, a reflection of the agency’s small role in K-12 schooling.
The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights tapped Obama administration alumnus Matt Nosanchuk, who served roles on national security and LGBTQ+ rights and as a liaison to the Jewish community, to serve as “coordinator on responding to book bans, among other topics and responsibilities.” The first steps will be relevant trainings in the near future for school officials, a department spokesperson said.
Housing the position at the Office for Civil Rights means the scope of what the agency can respond to on book bans will be limited to clear instances of disadvantaging a particular group, such as targeting LGBTQ+ students or students of color.
Despite those limitations, conservatives, who have disputed that book banning is an issue at all, attacked the appointment as overreach by a president looking to be reelected.
“Joe Biden’s Department of Ed is becoming indistinguishable from his reelection campaign,” tweeted Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education. “The only threat here is the government once again demonizing parents for having legitimate concerns over their minor children being exposed to graphic sexual novels in elementary schools.”
The Office for Civil Rights is a branch of the Department of Education tasked with protecting students from forms of discrimination. It can open investigations and secure settlement agreements with school districts to rectify violations, such as instances of sexual or racial discrimination or harassment. The agency can also offer forms of guidance to indicate to school districts what’s allowable under the Constitution and federal civil rights laws.
Critics and supporters of the move to install the coordinator alike say housing the issue in the office known as OCR makes sense; the Department of Education has vanishingly little authority over K-12 public schools in the country, but its civil rights enforcement powers are undisputed.
In May, the civil rights office resolved its sole investigation related to a book ban issue this year, dealing with a book “review” process in Georgia’s Forsyth County Schools. But the resolution agreement largely focused on the way the school district was communicating about its book review to students and the community and mainly faulted officials for not being more clear about the motivations and criteria behind the review. The school system was ordered to issue a statement and offer students support services.
Valant, the Brookings researcher, commended the naming of the coordinator but said he’d like to see the agency be more proactive in a similar way to how the Obama administration sought to tackle disparities in school discipline, by issuing strong guidance to schools about what would be discriminatory.
“Ideally what you would have is it would be clearly communicated to school districts across the country that there is a real cost to violating an individual’s civil rights, and that’s generally not what we find,” Valant said. “I think there is a lot of opportunity to expose how cruel those policies are and what most Americans think school should be.”
Representative Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut Democrat and former teacher who has worked with Cardona in that state and Washington, praised Cardona and work he has done to promote teaching in an interview earlier this summer, but acknowledged the department could be more forward-leaning in general.
“I would like to see some more assertive steps, but I trust that with the information that he has, he is moving at the pace that is the most appropriate and will have the most impact,” Hayes said.
Past efforts by the Department of Education to get involved in public schooling by both Republican and Democratic administrations have suffered strong backlash, including George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiatives.
Frederick M. Hess, a director of education policy at the right-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute, said that although he saw a clear role for the Office for Civil Rights to fight discrimination, he warned that using it to effectuate policy cuts both ways. A future Republican administration led by DeSantis, for example, might try to use the office to go after school districts that espouse antiracism policies.
“One of the things they teach in law school is that hard cases tend to make bad law,” Hess said. “OCR tends to get involved in the more extreme cases one way or another … but the more we think about federal legal action as the way to try to solve these problems, the more we make it harder for communities and schools to work these things out in, I think, a healthy, fair-minded fashion.”
Cardona acknowledged the limits of his authority in a breakfast with reporters last week held by The Christian Science Monitor. He said he would continue to be outspoken on the culture wars, but cited the Office for Civil Rights as the main avenue for department action, as well as his ability to highlight good practices.
“When we have attacks that are very targeted toward Black curriculum, or when we have targeted attacks against LGBTQ students, I stand up,” Cardona said. “The federal role in curriculum is nonexistent. It’s not a thing, and that’s OK. ... As a former chief, or former district leader, I respect that. That’s how it should be. But I will not stay silent as an educator and as a father.”