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NEA News

Educators Protect Students’ Freedom to Read

Illinois librarians are safeguarded by a new law that helps students look no further than the shelves of their own school libraries to find age-appropriate books that show they are reflected and respected.
student at library
Published: September 28, 2023

Key Takeaways

  1. New Illinois law blocks book bans, more states follow suit.
  2. NEA mobilizes to protect students’ access to information and materials.
  3. Celebrate the freedom to read during Banned Book Week, October 1-7.

In summer 2023, Gov. J.B. Pritzker made Illinois the first state in the country to block book bans.  Public schools and libraries that limit or ban materials based on “partisan or personal” disapproval will be ineligible for state funding come January 1, 2024, when the new law goes into effect. 

"We're so happy Illinois is leading on this issue. Book banners, whose efforts are the same as book burning, have always been on the wrong side of history,” says Al Llorens, president of the Illinois Education Association. “Students need to have the freedom to learn, which includes choosing books that interest them. 

He adds: “Books expand our minds and our worlds. Dating back to the one-room schoolhouse, parents and teachers have worked together to determine what's best for students, and that tradition carries on today." 

The benefits of having the right to read diverse materials in schools and libraries is not lost on other elected officials. 

California recently followed Illinois’ lead when, in September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a similar piece of legislation that prohibits book bans and textbook censorship in the state’s 10,000-plus schools. New Jersey is looking to do the same. 

The Freedom to Read and Learn, Protected 

For Jill Scarcelli, a library associate in Plainfield, Ill., the new law gives her some comfort in knowing that her students have the freedom to read the books they choose.

Headshot of Jill Scarcelli, an Illinois librarian.
Jill Scarcelli, an elementary school library associate in Illinois.

“Most of us want the same things,” says Scarcelli. “We want quality public schools for every student, and we want our students to have the freedom to reach their potential. Our libraries help with that. And so, we need them to represent all cultures, whether it's Black or White, native or newcomer, or rural and suburban communities alike. Students should have the opportunity to learn about themselves and about others. And yes, it has to be age appropriate.” 

Scarcelli shares a quote from her IEA president, Llorens, who recently said during a union meeting, “Students can't achieve what they can't see. 

“That really hit me,” she says of the quote, “because it’s true. They need to see themselves in stories. They need to … read to help build strong relationships with each other and with educators, and books help them to understand the world they live in and become productive members of society. That's what public education is about.” 

The Power of School Libraries 

As a school-aged child, Scarcelli often found herself in her school’s library, a place where she could shine. She wasn’t always the best student academically, she explains. “But I could excel in the library,” she says. “I could choose what I wanted to read. I could escape, and it was just the place to be. It was my safe place.” 

It’s one of the reasons she wanted to work in a school library: “To give kids that need a place somewhere to go, a place where they could feel safe and accepted,” she says. “So, they can come into the library and choose what they want to read. That's what we strive to do—get them to want to read and learn.” 

Scarcelli also prides herself on knowing that her library is not a quiet one. “We have fun. We read. We explore,” she says. 

While her library may be protected from certain politicians that deny some children the resources they need for a high-quality education, other librarians and educators remain at risk. They are prey to extreme groups who purposefully mischaracterize and stoke fears about what is taught in schools and call for book bans—censoring books written by mostly Black, brown, and LGBTQ-plus authors. 

This is why NEA continues to protect the right of all students, no matter where they live, to access information and materials, including age-appropriate books. 

Most Voters Want Diverse Books 

NEA has long championed diverse books and has worked with educators and parents to “[stand] together against power-hungry politicians who seek to threaten our students’ right to an education that is complete, truthful, and just,” says NEA President Becky Pringle.

And voters across the country want the same.  

One of the key findings from a 2022 poll from the American Library Association (ALA) reveals more than seven in 10 voters (71%) oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries, with a majority of voters across party lines opposed, including a majority of Democrats (75%), independents (58%), and Republicans (70%). 

 Communities across the nation are rejecting politicians who continue to ban books about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Billie Jean King, and Roberto Clemente. Candidates running to censor the teaching of history about topics such as slavery, the Trail of Tears, and the Holocaust are being rightfully rejected by voters in rural, urban, and suburban communities, Pringle says.  

A Voice for the Freedom to Read 

NEA has met the steady stream of attacks on educators who include diverse books in their repertoire with direct actions that celebrate all students’ identities, experiences, and cultures. 

Over the summer, NEA partnered with MoveOn to mobilize communities against book bans and politicians who want to take away learning opportunities from students, as well as with the Zinn Education Project during its Teach Truth Day of Action, in June.

NEA President Becky Pringle behind a podium during banned bookmobile tour.
In July 2023, NEA President Pringle joined MoveOn, a public policy advocacy group, to celebrate Illinois enacting the nation's first ban on book bans—a proactive move to protect students' right to read the books they choose.

This October brings another opportunity to celebrate the freedom to read and draw attention to the harms of censorship in libraries and schools. 

Banned Book Week 2023 (October 1-7) will once again bring together educators, parents, and allies to take actions that highlight the array of voices and stories that need to be heard and seen.  

For more than 40 years, the annual event has brought together the entire book communitylibrarians, teachers, booksellers, publishers, writers, journalists, and readers of all typesin shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.   

To get involved or organize an event, visit the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Books website.

High school student reading graphic novel in the library

Classroom Resources to Support the Freedom to Read

Find resources to highlight why it is important to give students choice in what they read, what you can do to support and protect their right to choose books from all viewpoints, and how you can help them access relatable, enjoyable reading materials.

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National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.