“There’s material, there’s content in some books that just have no business being in any K-12 school,” he said Thursday. “Would any teacher show a rated-R movie in class? No. Would any teacher show a rated-PG-13 movie to kindergartners? No, absolutely not.”
The state’s second-largest district has publicly grappled with laws passed last year that limit what teachers can talk about and what resources they can use in their classrooms. A Cobb teacher was fired in August after reading a book about gender to fifth graders — a move she is appealing to the Georgia Board of Education. Cobb also removed books with “sexually explicit” content from school libraries, to both criticism and applause.
Ragsdale referenced the rating system for movies, which was established by the Motion Picture Association, and a federal law that requires districts to block students’ access to obscene images, child pornography or content harmful to minors when using the internet, among other requirements.
Board member Becky Sayler, a Democrat, said the priority raised a lot of questions that made her hesitant to support it. She worried about the word “inappropriate” being too vague and leaving too much up to personal opinion, and suggested changing it to be “sexually explicit” or “pornographic.” She made a motion to that effect, but the board’s Republican majority voted down the effort. It also voted down a motion from Sayler to postpone the vote.
“I think we might just be creating more restrictions in our school district that are not helpful to children,” she said.
Ragsdale told board members he wouldn’t expect any progress to be made on the rating system during the 2024 legislative session, even if it gains traction, but it’s somewhere to start: “Let’s create a floor,” he said.
It’s uncommon for government agencies to attempt to create rating systems for books, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. She’s not aware of any other states that have attempted something similar. Attempts to limit access to materials can be seen as a type of prior restraint, she said, which would violate the First Amendment.
“Making a judgment about content is really not a role for government to play,” she said, adding that courts in the past have overturned attempts to enforce rating systems.
The Cobb school board’s other priorities for the year revolve around education funding and academic interventions. Notably, the district will ask for funding for literacy initiatives and push lawmakers to apply more accountability standards to private school voucher programs.
Legislative priorities for Cobb schools in 2023-24
- Sustain current levels of funding for the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS)
- Oppose diversion of funds from public education
- Require fiscal notes for all education legislation that would affect school funding
- Apply the same standards of accountability to all recipients of public money for education
- Sustain Teachers Retirement System as currently structured
- Incentivize higher education for teachers
- Fully fund changes to state literacy initiatives
- Allow comparable flexibility for Strategic Waiver and Charter Systems
- Provide adequate funding to address dyslexia following screener identification
Safety and security
- Provide an annual categorical safety and security grant
- Develop a state rating system for books in kindergarten through 12th grade to prevent inappropriate materials from being accessed by children