Mat-Su school board rescinds vote to remove ‘Catch-22’ and 4 other books from English classes

Three of the five books the Mat-Su School Board had voted to remove from a reading list for high school English electives. (Tegan Hanlon/Alaska Public Media)

The school board of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District rescinded its vote to remove “Catch-22,” “The Great Gatsby” and three other novels from the reading list for high school English electives following widespread backlash. 

But, that doesn’t mean the books — deemed “controversial” — are back on the reading list for the upper-level classes. Instead, the board voted on Wednesday to punt the decision on the reading list and course outline until May 2021 after two hours of, at times, heated debate and a protest outside of district headquarters in Palmer.

Some school board members, including Richard “Ole” Larson, argued that the books were inappropriate for a high school classroom because of graphic content that could upset students. While board member Sarah Welton said educators are trained to teach that material.

“When children read a story of another child who has gone through something similar, they don’t feel like they were the ones at fault, they learn,” she said, “especially when you have teachers who have been given instruction.” 

Along with “Catch-22” and “The Great Gatsby,” the school board had originally plucked from the reading list “Invisible Man,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “The Things They Carried.” The board also had removed The New York Times’ section, “The Learning Network,” from writing classes.

The removals sparked outrage, captured national headlines and prompted the Alaska-rooted band Portugal. The Man to offer to send the books to any student in the district who wanted to read them. At the board’s prior meeting in May, more than 50 people testified about the removal of the books, nearly all pushing the board to rescind its vote.

Students and community members gathered outside of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District’s headquarters on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, to protest recent school board decisions, including its removal of five books from an English class reading list. (Photo courtesy Denile Ault)

Ultimately, the board did just that — voting 6-1 to throw out its earlier vote. Board member Ryan Ponder cast the only no vote. He criticized reporters and others for describing the removal of the books as a “ban,” and said the novels are still in the library. He raised concerns that some parents feel ignored if they try to object to a book on a class reading lists.

“I believe that there is a process that needs to be put in place,” he said. “There’s definitely some things that need to be looked at.” 

Board members were also critical of the content of the books. 

Board member Jim Hart told parents tuning into the meeting that they may want to have their young children stop listening. He paused, and then began reading an excerpt of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” where she describes rape.

“I wanted to read that for the record so people could know what we’re talking about,” Hart said. “And, specifically, what we’re talking about has nothing to do with race… We’re talking about propriety for sexual content in front of minors. We have other literature available. I think we can use it.”

A furious Mat-Su Superintendent Monica Goyette jumped in: “I am deeply offended. That is not sexual content. That is rape of a child. A teacher would have prefaced that section.”

A teacher would also teach the entire book, and discuss it, she said.

“I read the text as it came in the book, and I read it heartfelt, ma’am,” Hart responded. “And I also said it was tragic. I did. This is a question of propriety.” 

Board president Thomas Bergey led the charge to rescind the prior vote based on concerns about policy. He said the district needed time to improve its systems for involving parents in decisions on controversial materials, and aligning those policies with state law.

“Those need to be corrected before we can even move on,” he said.

The Mat-Su book controversy stems from 2019, when the board requested that the district administration create course outlines and reading lists for the ongoing English electives. A team including teachers and librarians created the reading list, with input from the public. It flagged the five books as controversial, and the board requested more information about them in early April. A district document summarizes the challenges with the books and the rationale to still teach them.

Then, in late April, the board voted to cut the books from the list. Some teachers and community members said they were blindsided.

The district will now revisit the reading list and curriculum — largely starting the process over. In the meantime, elective courses will continue as they normally have, without the board-approved reading list. 

After Wednesday’s vote, Portugal. The Man declared “victory for all of humanity” in a Twitter post. There’s still a long way to go, the band said.

But, Dianne Shibe, the president of the local teacher union, felt less cheery. She doesn’t support the board pushing off its final decision on the reading list.

Shibe also criticized the board for a lack of transparency on the initial book removal, and other district issues. She underscored that a commitee has already reviewed and approved the reading list.

“I look at it as political,” she said of the board’s decision. “This all feels very political to me, and that’s not appropriate for a school board.” 

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.