How the Brooklyn Library Helped Fight Book Bans in Oklahoma

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Good morning. It’s Monday. We’ll look at how a QR code from the Brooklyn Public Library figured in an Oklahoma teacher’s resignation. We’ll also look at how New York officials are facing questions about oversight in Hasidic schools as the state Board of Regents considers rules for holding private schools to minimum academic standards.

The classroom that Summer Boismier used to teach in is about 1,400 miles from the Brooklyn Public Library’s imposing main branch on Grand Army Plaza. Boismier — who describes herself as newly “self-employed,” adding wryly that her mother “keeps saying I’m unemployed” — will make the trip in the next week or so.

Boismier resigned as a high school English teacher in Norman, Okla., after posting a QR code directing students to the Brooklyn library’s Books UnBanned program, created to reach readers in places where books might be taken off the shelves.

Her students walked in on the first day of school last month to find bookshelves in her room shrouded in red paper. On the paper she had written “books the state doesn’t want you to read.”

Boismier said the display was a reaction to a state law known as HB 1775 that was enacted in May to limit what public schools could teach about race and gender. She said she spent two minutes of class time talking about the QR code. A parent soon complained. She was placed on administrative leave and summoned to a meeting with school administrators.

She said she resigned a few hours after the meeting “because it had become pretty clear to me that there was absolutely zero way that I was going to be able to do my job with HB 1775 hanging over my head.” Ryan Walters, the state education secretary, demanded that Boismier’s teaching credentials be revoked, writing on Twitter that she did not have “Oklahoma values.”

Asked if Boismier had violated any regulations, a spokesman for the Norman public schools said, “I don’t know if there are specific regulations.”

The spokesman, Wes Moody, said the meeting with Boismier was scheduled “because a parent had come to us with a concern,” but that it was confidential and he was “not privy” to what was said. Boismier told me that she had made no partisan political statements in class but had told her students she had covered the shelves “because of bigoted legislation.”

Moves to ban books have escalated around the country, with parents, activists and conservative lawmakers adopting increasingly aggressive tactics to challenge titles. Boismier’s trip to Brooklyn will coincide with Banned Books Week, designated in 1982 by a coalition that included the American Library Association to draw attention to attempts to challenge freedom of speech.

Linda Johnson, the library’s president and chief executive, said that 5,100 requests for digital cards had come in since Books UnBanned began in the spring. She said the library has lent about 20,000 items.

She said the requests were often accompanied by “poignant emails” from people who said they did not have access to books they wanted to read. Last year the American Library Association counted censorship attempts involving just under 1,600 books.

“If you run a public library where the mission is to provide access to the world’s information and knowledge and you’re seeing libraries across the country being barred from doing that work, it’s dispiriting,” Johnson said. “This gets to the heart of democracy. It’s First Amendment rights that are at stake. The idea that the government would be legislating around that is incredibly frightening to people in our line of work.”

Weather

Expect rain in the late afternoon, with temperatures ranging from the low 70s to the low 80s. At night, prepare for a chance of showers and thunderstorms.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Sept. 26 (Rosh Hashana).

A day after a New York Times investigation showed that students in some Hasidic schools were among the lowest performing on standardized tests in the state, the state Board of Regents will consider proposed rules this week that would make the state responsible for ensuring that Hasidic schools teach secular subjects like English and math.

The board, the 17-person body that sets educational policy in New York, is expected to approve the proposals on Tuesday.

The schools, known as yeshivas, could face the loss of public funding if they are found to be denying children a basic nonreligious education. The Times investigation found that many Hasidic boys’ yeshivas have just 90 minutes a day of reading and math, only four days a week.

The Times investigation found that 99 percent of the thousands of Hasidic boys who took state standardized tests in reading and math in 2019 failed. Like other private schools in New York, yeshivas are not required to give the tests. Most do not, but some do, as a condition of receiving public funding. The Times investigation found that more than $1 billion in state money has gone to Hasidic boys’ schools over the last four years.

The vote by the Regents would cap a contentious process stretching back years. It revolves around a state law dating to the 1890s that says private schools must provide instruction that is “substantially equivalent” to the education in public schools.

State education officials have struggled for years to draw up regulations amid opposition from the Hasidic community. A judge invalidated one set of proposals over a procedural issue in 2019. The state withdrew a different plan in 2020 after Hasidic leaders again voiced objections.

The proposed rules now before the Regents detail fewer requirements. The state has not outlined clear consequences for schools that do not comply with directions for providing basic instruction in English, math, science and civics. Nor do the proposed rules set a minimum amount of time that a school must devote to nonreligious instruction.

After the proposals were made public in March, Hasidic leaders moved to block them, sending yeshiva students home with fliers urging parents to bombard officials with letters taking issue with the proposals.

Last week, after The Times sent the schools a summary of its findings, several Hasidic groups defended the education the schools provide in opinion articles and statements and denied some of The Times’s findings.

Warnings about the yeshivas have long circulated, and The Times found that three employees of the state education department had raised concerns, which they said their superiors had ignored; a spokesman for the department did not respond to a request for comment. And politicians who might have pressed for changes have placated the Hasidic community, which Evan Stavisky, a longtime political consultant, called “part of the fabric of New York politics.”

METROPOLITAN diary

Trunk treats

Dear Diary:

Throughout my 20s, I lived alone in Manhattan. I had two cats, siblings I adopted as kittens. Between my work schedule and going out, I knew there would be times when they needed each other for company.

One night when I was coming home late, it was not until I was in a cab that I realized I had forgotten to get my very particular cats their preferred food. I asked the cabby to pull over at the next open bodega we passed so I could buy some.

He refused my request, saying that it was not necessary to stop.

I didn’t argue, figuring I would just walk to the local late-night spot several blocks away when I got home.

After stopping in front of my building, I got out of the cab and so did the driver. He opened the trunk and there it was: a full case of cat food. He handed me two cans.

“No charge,” he said.

It was my cats’ favorite brand.

Robin Hoffmann

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.

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