COLUMBUS, Ohio — With the culture war surrounding Critical Race Theory in full force in Ohio, schools are getting increased calls to ban literature.
The new school year is about to begin, and already the fight about the books students will read has begun. Banning books is not a new issue.
“Passages like that can mess with people's heads and they're not worth it,” Chuck Bartsche said about a line in "The Bluest Eye" a novel by Nobel prize recipient Toni Morrison. “The gain for that is so little.”
Bartsche refers to himself as a conservative organizer. He had an unsuccessful bid to join Rocky River City Schools’ Board of Education in 2021, running on the platform of banning both CRT and mask mandates.
Despite his campaign loss, he is still eager to remove what he believes is CRT from Rocky River.
Right now he is focused on stopping or limiting the teaching of "The Bluest Eye."
“I'm not sure what [the book is] supposed to tell us,” Bartsche said. “I mean, there's no positive.”
The book, set in Morrison’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio, centers around a young black girl and the racism, colorism and sexual abuse she faces. The book is taught in an AP English course and is widely known as an American classic.
In a Facebook community group, Bartsche attempted to rally residents to complain to the school district.
“Before the Rocky River School Board allows the school administration to use taxpayer dollars to include in the curriculum a book (The Bluest Eye) that has sexual content including rape, molestation, incest, and pedophilia, they should have read the book themselves,” his post said.
The comments blew up quickly, but not in Bartsche’s favor. More than 90 comments were on the post at one point – but then the moderators turned off commenting.
“Let’s not educate our kids about the atrocities of mankind,” one user wrote. “Is there a book about rainbows and lollipops they can read instead?”
Another user specifically targeted Bartsche for his consistent posting in the group.
“You really should find another hobby Chuck or join a cult or something,” the individual said.
One of the comments disagreeing with the conservative was from Katterli Coloutes.
“Thank you, Chuck Bartsche, as your incessant copying and pasting has convinced me to buy this book!” she said.
Coloutes has two young children in the school district and completely disagrees with Bartsche.
“I think it's an important thing to have books like that out there, so children in this age are exposed to those difficult situations and those difficult conversations that they may not have had yet,” she told News 5.
For Bartsche, the sexual assault scenes are too graphic and he said the amount of talk about race is uncomfortable.
“Just by the title, you know, it falls under that CRT category of trying to make a class of people, by their skin color, victims and other ones as oppressors,” he said. “It's important to realize how much anybody can get ahead in this country.”
Ignoring our history isn’t how education works, Coloutes said.
“That's the whole point of education,” she said. “Show them what has happened in our country, how we've failed, and show them what we can do about it.”
Kids will be exposed to difficult topics with or without books like The Bluest Eye, Coloutes said. Plus, it's not like 10-year-olds are going to be reading the book, she said — the book is for 17-year-olds in a class that can be used for college credit.
“These kids are playing Call of Duty and watching R-rated movies and doing whatever else unsupervised,” the mother added. “Is this book really going to hurt them by just giving them a taste of someone else's struggle and what it might be like to be in someone else's shoes and to deal with some hard issues?”
Something brought up frequently by other parents News 5 spoke to was that the Bible includes all of the cited topics that Bartsche said weren’t appropriate. Bartsche said it isn’t comparable.
“That's just a red herring,” he said. “They're false on that thing because they would go crazy about – that if they made them do the report on a chapter in the Bible.”
But tax dollars shouldn’t be spent on making someone feel guilty for the color of their skin, he said, referencing white children.
“I don't see how a book would make white children feel guilty,” Coloutes said. “And honestly, if it did, maybe it would empower them to do more.”
The "white-guilt" argument is the same one Republican legislators are making at the Statehouse.
House Bill 616 states that no school district, community school, STEM school, nonpublic school that enrolls students who are participating in a state scholarship program, or any employee or other third party representing a school district or school, can teach any “divisive or inherently racist concepts.” That includes all of the critical race theory, intersectional theory, the 1619 project, diversity, equity, and inclusion learning outcomes and “inherited racial guilt.” The next section of the bill touches on sexuality and gender identity.
This bill came after News 5 aired an exclusive report about comments made by one of the primary sponsors of the original “divisive concepts” bill — H.B. 327. The report stemmed from an interview exchange between state Representative Sarah Fowler Arthur (R-Ashtabula) and a News 5 reporter Morgan Trau in early March.
During the interview, Fowler Arthur was asked about the financial aspect of the bill. While attempting to talk about funding, she brought up the Holocaust, saying that students needed to hear the massacre from the perspective of the "German soldiers."
After the exclusive News 5 story on House Bill 327's sponsor's comments on the Holocaust went international, the original divisive concepts bill has been renamed the "both sides bill" or the "both sides of the Holocaust bill."
The lawmakers say this is to provide "transparency to parents" and to "protect against indoctrination."
Bartsche also believes indoctrination is what makes Republicans become progressive in college, he said.
"The youth are coming out of college and are thinking a different way," the conservative added. "So this book and other ones as such, are all part of that education system — it's not just about exposure to stuff, but more about changing the youth, the young minds."
The reason why people change their beliefs from the ones they grew up with is not due to indoctrination — but rather education and the ability to form one's own opinion, Coloutes argued.
Bartsche doesn’t believe in the “bigotry of low expectations,” he said, noting that he isn’t saying people shouldn’t be sympathetic, but he has had his own hardships too, despite not being Black.
“I'm 5-foot-6, you know how much trouble I've got in my life for being five-six?” he asked. “I mean, it's been a lot of hassle.”
Being below the average height for a man isn’t the same thing as systemic oppression and institutionalized racism, progressive activists argue.
The conservative advocates in Rocky River aren’t alone in this battle. Larger organizations across the state will attend many different school districts’ board meetings.
“What the parents of the school district really want and are focused on are very different things than what we're seeing is coming in from the outside,” activist Katie Paris said.
Paris is the founder of Red Wine and Blue, an advocacy group that encourages suburban women and moms to stay informed on local, state and national politics.
She started a campaign called Book Ban Busters, where she and other parents across the country fight against these bans. She said from the research her team has done, they've learned that statewide and nationwide groups are helping grow the anti-CRT movement.
“Over the last year, all across the country, unfortunately, in about 48 states, we have seen these attempts to ban books,” she said. “Consistently across the board, they are targeting books by Black authors, by LGBTQ authors.”
The largest groups in Ohio are the Center for Christian Virtue (CCV), Ohio Value Voters and Protect Ohio Children. Each collaborates to fight against material they deem as inappropriate.
These groups are also influential in policy making at the Statehouse. CCV works closely with Republican lawmakers to push bills that would deny transgender youth gender-affirming health care, prohibit discussions of sexuality, gender and race in school and prevent child sex abuse prevention instruction.
From a quick scroll on the Protect Ohio Children Facebook page, the conservative activists have gone to dozens of school board meetings across the state. And this is true for Rocky River.
“For somebody to not even have their children going to the school...it kind of feels like — spend your time better somewhere else?” Coloutes said.
Neither Bartsche nor his children went to Rocky River, but he said he is advocating for the people who are too afraid to speak up.
“The people that believe my way are silent and don't talk because they see what happens to me,” he said.
Rocky River City Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Shoaf told News 5 that this is a non-issue and they will not be removing the award-winning author's book.
"It's an AP course and we have a policy in our district that if a parent doesn't want their child to read a book, we will give them other instructional material," Shoaf said. "That's how we handle it."
Despite the heated school board meetings, Rocky River has stood its ground and has not removed a single book from its curriculum, he added.
Bartsche is going to keep fighting, even though the current alternative gives the parents the choice to stop their child from reading the book — which is what he wanted.
“Jefferson said, you know, 'One man's courage is [sic] a majority,'” Bartsche said, misattributing the quote.
(It was Andrew Jackson).