Introduction: This spring, Rep. Patterson and Sen. Paxton authored and passed HB 900, the READER Act, which Gov. Abbott signed into law in June alongside HB 1605, another law that refocuses schools on core instruction while empowering parents.

As detailed below, the READER Act empowers parents with transparency into library materials while removing explicit content from school libraries. This week, the SBOE will vote on the state standards in order to implement the law by the January 1 deadline.

Recommendation: TPPF recommends that the SBOE approve the proposed standards. We are grateful to Rep. Patterson and Sen. Paxton for their tireless work to protect the innocence of Texas children and we call on the SBOE to vote for the proposed draft rules in order to faithfully implement the law.

A detailed summary of the READER Act is below.

HB 900’s Goal: The Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources Act, or READER Act, provides procedures for rating school library materials to identify content that is sexually relevant or sexually explicit, as well as establishes state standards for school libraries. In doing so, the READER Act provides Texas public school parents and students with increased transparency regarding library materials and increases parental control over the types of content their children may access at school.

HB 900 affects parents, the state, school districts, and vendors in different ways.

Parents: HB 900 provides parents with transparency regarding what library materials are available to their children through the content review report. By requiring schools to remove sexually explicit materials, children will also be protected from exposure to inappropriate content. For sexually relevant materials, parents will be able to restrict their children’s access by withholding their consent.

Texas State Library & Archives Commission (TSLAC): Under Texas Education Code (TEC) Sec. 33.021(c) and (d)(2), TSLAC must adopt standards for school library collection policies that:

  1. prohibit the possession, acquisition, and purchase of:
    1. harmful material;
    2. library material rated sexually explicit by the vendor selling the library material; or
    3. library material that is pervasively vulgar or educationally unsuitable;
  2. recognize that obscene content is not protected by the First Amendment;
  3. are required for all library materials available for use or display, including material contained in school libraries, classroom libraries, and online catalogs;
  4. recognize that parents are the primary decision makers regarding a student’s access to library material;
  5. encourage schools to provide library catalog transparency;
  6. recommend that schools communicate effectively with parents regarding collection development; and
  7. prohibit removing materials based only on their ideas or the personal background of the author or characters.

The terms used above are defined by the READER Act as follows:

  1. Harmful Material: Harmful material is defined by TPC Sec. 43.24 under Sale, Distribution, or Display of Harmful material to Minor as “material whose dominant theme taken as a whole:”
    1. appeals to the prurient interest of a minor, in sex, nudity, or excretion;
    2. is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable for minors; and
    3. is utterly without redeeming social value for minors.
  2. Sexually Explicit Material (TEC Sec. 33.021): In summary, sexually explicit material consists of library materials that include patently offensive (as defined by Texas Penal Code (TPC) Sec. 43.21) sexual conduct. (as defined by TPC Sec. 43.25) This material does not include required curriculum, such as health textbooks.
  3. Pervasively Vulgar or Educationally Unsuitable Materials: In a plurality opinion the U.S. Supreme Court explained in Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982) that it would not be unconstitutional to remove books for pervasive vulgarness or educational unsuitability as long as the removal was not due to viewpoint discrimination. However, materials may be selected or rejected based on grade-level appropriateness or alignment with instructional materials. As such, Texas schools already have broad authority to remove materials from school libraries. For example, in 2022, 801 books were removed from school libraries across 22 districts in Texas. HB 900 adopts a system to rate and enforce standards statewide.
  4. Sexually Relevant: Sexually relevant material is any visual, written, or audio material that describes, depicts, or portrays sexual conduct. A school library may not allow a student to check out or access material rated as sexually relevant without parental consent (Sec. 35.005, TEC).

State Board of Education (SBOE): Under TEC Sec. 33.021(c), the SBOE shall review and may approve by majority vote the standards adopted by TSLAC for school district library collection development. The TSLAC standards will guide a library’s selection of materials. School districts must adhere to these standards when developing or implementing the district’s library collection development policies. These standards must be reviewed and updated at least once every five years (TEC Sec. 33.021(d)(1)). We recommend the SBOE vote to approve the proposed TSLAC’s standards because they sufficiently uphold the seven requirements contained in TEC Sec. 33.021(d)(2).

School Districts: Under TEC Sec. 33.021(c), school districts must adhere to the library policies approved by the SBOE. Under TEC Sec. 35.005, school districts may not allow a student to reserve, check out, or otherwise use a library material rated as sexually relevant without consent from the student’s parent. In addition, under TEC Sec. 35.006, by January 1st of each odd numbered year, a school district must review all materials in its collection rated as sexually relevant and determine, according to its school or district collection development policies, whether to retain the material. The district must create a report including the title of each sexually relevant material and the school or district’s decision and make this report accessible on the school or district’s website or make physical copies available at the campus or district office.

Library Material Vendors: The READER Act requires vendors to rate all materials that they sell and to note sexually relevant and sexually explicit materials (TEC Sec. 35.002). These ratings will be used to complete the following tasks:

  1. TEA notification: By April 2024, vendors must notify TEA of all sexually explicit and sexually relevant material that they have sold to public schools. (TEA must post to its website the list of sexually explicit and sexually relevant materials that are sold.)
  2. Sale prohibited: Vendors may not sell sexually explicit material and must recall such material.
  3. Public list: Vendors must report library material ratings to TEA, which may require a rating change. If the vendor does not change the rating in a timely manner, TEA will place it on a list of vendors from which public schools may not purchase library materials. (Vendors added to the list may request that they be removed and TEA may do so when the vendor complies with the library material rating requirements.)