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As the Public Focuses on Book Bans, the Right Is Quietly Defunding Libraries

To protect libraries, we need to fight defunding as hard as we fight book bans.

The ongoing war against public education has put libraries in the crosshairs.

The war on libraries is being fought on two fronts. On the first, we have extremists calling on librarians to repent for the sin of building collections and offering programming related to LGBTQ+ experiences. Proud Boys show up armed to protest Drag Queen Story Hours. The cops are called to investigate allegedly “obscene” materials on the shelves during Pride month.

The second front, perhaps less spectacular but no less damaging, is the ongoing war against public education that has put libraries in the crosshairs. The fight for public institutions must address both points of attack and requires a political analysis and project that moves beyond the issue of book banning.

Just as they did in the 1990s, conservative activists are pairing their ostensible “culture war” with a concerted policy focus on privatizing public sector goods. In Utah, right-wing parent groups followed the contemporary game plan, pushing librarians to remove books from shelves, claiming that content acknowledging the existence of queer life was prima facie obscene.

Last January, the state passed HB 374 banning “sensitive materials” from public schools. A month later, the legislature debated HB 331, which would have transferred $36 million from per-pupil spending to a Hope Scholarship Fund that could be used to pay for private and religious school tuition and expenses related to homeschooling. (That bill ultimately failed, with some legislatures arguing there are already multiple ways that the state funds private and parochial education.) When I talked with school librarians in the state about what they were facing, they were very clear on this point: Book banning goes hand in hand with the voucher movement.

A similar story is unfolding in South Carolina. Much of the media coverage has focused on the conflict at the Travelers Rest branch of the Greenville County Library System, where Allen Hill, the head of the library board, has been clear that LGBTQ+ materials should not be highlighted or even included in collections. On a visit to the library during Banned Books Week, a library staffer told me Hill had picked up the bookmarks that staff had made to promote the event and threw them in the garbage can. Public librarians have been forced to organize against a state legislative proposal banning “sexual materials” from children’s sections. The Palmetto Promise Institute (PPI), a right-wing think tank, calls this a “clash of worldviews” between organizations like the National Education Association and accrediting agencies and the individual families who want to protect their children from “pornographic” materials (always a category that only the right is qualified to define).

But the war on books is not the primary concern of PPI. Their real aim is expanding school vouchers, also called Educational Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). Proudly proclaiming that “no organization in South Carolina has studied the details of ESAs more than PPI,” PPI pushes for the establishment of ESAs that funnel state money to religious and other private school tuition. The institute’s website features celebrations of Charter School Week, an interview with a Shell Oil executive titled “It’s All About Opportunity,” and testimonials from families attesting to the value of “choice” for their children in the form of ESAs. In November, Ellen Weaver, the founding CEO of PPI, was elected to a four-year term as South Carolina’s superintendent of education.

Organizing against attempts to censor library collections is growing and winning local battles. A book banning resolution in Greenville County, South Carolina, failed after pushback. The school board in Conroe, Texas, voted to keep a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower on the shelves. A nuisance suit against a librarian in Kentucky was dismissed. In New York City, a colorful and lively group of counterprotesters stood ready to greet protesters at a Drag Queen Story Hour. The protesters never showed.

In case after case, attempts to ban books are met by huge community turnout at board hearings and meetings. The push to ban books is clearly a minority position. It’s less clear that privatizing public education is.

Linking a culture war with concrete policy is a hallmark of the right’s rise to power. Angry parents screaming about sex ed and their fragile children generates a lot of media attention, as do the protests that push back. It can be harder to shine that spotlight on education policy that constitutes censorship by another name: the defunding of public institutions, including the library. One consequence of book banning efforts is that a whole lot of people are thinking a whole lot more about libraries and why they matter, and many of them are showing up in great numbers to defend the right to read. The project now is to meet that moment with a vision and plan that connects this new energy to longstanding organized struggles for increased public funding for public goods.