Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools changes e-book app over ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ concerns

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this week ended its use of a popular library app that gave students access to more than 40,000 books, due to a controversial state law.

The change comes in response to the state’s passage of Senate Bill 49, titled the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” which passed in a party-line vote in August to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto. The bill has several provisions, including those expanding parents’ access to their children’s records as well as imposing strict limits on the instruction of topics related to gender identity and sexuality.

The e-book app, Epic, is currently used in over 80% of U.S. elementary schools. CMS said Epic primarily was used by students in kindergarten through second grade during independent reading time.

“Districts are expected to ensure that curriculum and instructional resources, including supplemental materials, for Kindergarten through fourth grade students do not teach on gender identity, sexual activity, or sexuality. EPIC is considered a supplemental resource, and CMS recently learned that there were books on this digital platform that were in violation of this law,” CMS Deputy Superintendent Melissa Balknight said in an email to The Charlotte Observer. “Since EPIC does not allow CMS to manage and monitor access to books on this platform, a decision was made to remove access to this digital platform during the instructional day to adhere to Senate Bill 49.”

The district’s Digital Learning and Library Services team told school administrators access to the app for students and staff would end Monday, according to an email obtained by The Charlotte Observer.

CMS is shifting its schools to the use of a different e-book app, Sora, that critics of the change say could lead to more limited options for students.

It’s unclear how many N.C. school districts have or will make similar moves, though it does not appear to be a directive from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Media specialists with Asheville City Schools and Buncombe County Schools told the Observer they don’t believe their districts intend to shift away from Epic.

While there is currently a process in place for challenging individual books, it requires review by the nine-member CMS Central Media Advisory Committee.With the discontinuation of Epic in CMS, students and teachers lost access to its collection of more than 40,000 books at once without review.

Criticism of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ change

CMS is far from the first school district to ditch the app in recent years. School districts in Florida, Texas and Tennessee have done away with the app due to complaints from parents about content their children could access. The complaints largely centered upon access to materials with LGBTQ themes and social justice, the Nashville Tennesseean reported.

Critics of the change say SB49 does not prohibit the use of the platform.

“We do not see a legal argument there. There is a provision that prohibits instruction on gender identity and sexuality in kindergarten through fourth grade, but instruction does not mean access,” said Craig White, supportive schools director at LGBTQ rights organization Campaign for Southern Equality. “It’s a significant over-interpretation of SB49 to deny students access to books, rather than changing what’s in the curriculum from the front of the classroom.”

There is also a provision in SB49 that gives parents the right to access a history of what books their child checked out from the school library and the right to review all supplementary instructional materials themselves.

White says e-book platforms have become indispensable to both students and teachers in recent years, especially during the pandemic.

“Both the state and local districts have been slashing funding for buying books in print, so more and more, English language arts teachers and media specialists have been turning to digital libraries instead, where there is a lot more access to a lot more titles for much less cost,” White said.