A controversial reading given to Spanish Fort High School students in Gene Ponder’s AP Government class was pulled amid social media complaints from parents. (file photo)
Baldwin County School Superintendent Eddie Tyler. (file photo)
The head of Alabama’s third-largest school system says he wasn’t concerned with the content of a summer reading list filled with hardline conservative authors promoted by a Spanish Fort High School teacher.
But Superintendent Eddie Tyler, who heads up the 31,000-student Baldwin County School System – which includes Spanish Fort High School, where the reading list was assigned by an AP Government teacher — said Friday he was more upset with teacher Gene Ponder’s “failure” to follow a district policy in getting the list approved.
“Even if the books were authored by other well-known people such as Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi, I would have reacted in the same manner,” Tyler said in an email that was forwarded to the district’s approximately 3,600 employees. “The problem wasn’t the list, the problem was that the list had not gone through the proper vetting process.”
Added Tyler: “After speaking with (Ponder), he admitted as much, and I appreciated his honesty.”
Ponder has not spoken out publicly on a reading list that includes a swath of conservative media personalities and former public servants such as Michael Savage, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, Charles Colson, Ron Paul and President Ronald Reagan.
Tyler said he encouraged Ponder – he did not name the teacher by name in the email – to read all of the 31 books on the summer reading list and “if he so chooses” make recommendations on books for students to read to a social studies departmental committee. The committee would then review the books at the appropriate time following the next school year.
“I have asked him to contact me to discuss any concerns he may have with the review process,” said Tyler. “However, I believe that any books placed before the social studies departmental committee will be given a thorough review by those educators.”
The school system pulled the reading list last week following an outburst of criticism on social media, after initial concern was raised by Spanish Fort resident Elizabeth Denham.
Her blog post, which was published on the Huffington Post, called the list of 31 suggested books as “anti-climate change, anti-liberal, pro-Christian” filled with “not one academic book” and “zero historical/intellectual options.” She said it was an inappropriate list for a public school.
Elizabeth Denham, a Democrat and political progressive, often keeps her silence in Alabama social circle. But she was stirred by her son’s heavily right-leaning summer reading list and her actions reflect an upbringing where she was encouraged to both hear and share differing views.
Tyler, in a statement last week, said the reading list had not been endorsed by the school system. The school’s principal, in a message to Denham, said he was unaware of the list’s contents.
Tyler, in his email Friday, said that all students need “a healthy dose of both sides of the political arguments and viewpoints, both conservative and liberal.” Denham noted in her blog post that there were only two books suggested in Ponder’s reading list that she found acceptable, but she added “they weren’t ideal.”
“The social studies list does not worry me,” Tyler said, adding that there were a “few books on the list which I’d like to read.”
He added, “What I worry about is exposing students to a book on Jack and Jane showing up in a second-grade classroom with inappropriate pictures and talking about a subject that might be offensive to parents. I do not want this to happen. When we don’t adhere to a process for vetting an official reading list, we find ourselves in jeopardy of placing in appropriate material in the hands of students.”
Tyler’s comments come after some of the authors whose books were on the list blasted the decision on Twitter last week.
ALABAMA KILLS READING LIST BECAUSE SAVAGE’S BOOKS DOMINATED
— Michael Savage (@ASavageNation) June 23, 2017
Surprise. CNN hawks censorship of conservative books. https://t.co/jrfI2H4bJ9
— Mark R. Levin (@marklevinshow) June 25, 2017
“I am very proud of our teachers and the work they do,” Tyler said. “I want our teachers to push to think outside the box and consider many perspectives before arriving at the truth themselves. I ask that teachers challenge their students and expose them to different ways of thinking. While I encourage this, we have to keep in mind there is a process in place to allow that exposure to happen.”
Denham has noted that the reading list, when first publicized, outraged her Democrat friends. On the Baldwin County Democrats Facebook page, multiple posts were directed at Ponder, who once ran as Republican for lieutenant governor.
Denham, in her blog post, said that Ponder’s conservative-heavy reading list “had been used for several years” but noted that like-minded liberals in Baldwin County tended to stay quiet because the county is heavily Republican. Baldwin County, for instance, supported President Donald Trump in the November election by a 76.5-19.4 percent differential over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Tyler’s email didn’t specify Denham by name. She noted that her 17-year-old son is the incoming Southeast Regional Director for Alabama’s High School Democrats of America.
“Many complain that public education relies on too much liberal indoctrination,” Tyler said in his email. “I do not believe that to be the case in Baldwin County Public Schools. I encourage our teachers to balance their teachings and political philosophies so they appropriately reflect the real world we live in today. As superintendent, I want our students to have a balanced education.”
Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery
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