Iowa City educators say rhetoric from Iowa lawmakers about material distributed in public schools is problematic and prevents constructive conversations on difficult topics.
Following the opening of the 2022 legislative session, Iowa City Community School District Superintendent Matt Degner took to Twitter to respond to comments from Republican leaders about public education.
“Why are today’s leaders so opposed to conversations on improvement and working together on hard issues rather than instilling fear and blame? We are not the enemy,” Degner wrote in a Twitter thread. “We love your kids and your family that serves our schools. We were once a state others looked to as an educational leader.”
In his opening address to the Senate on Jan. 10, Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said lawmakers should work this session to prevent educators from distributing material he called “obscene.”
“Our students should be learning about science, and mathematics; they should be learning about engineering and innovation,” Chapman said in his speech. “Instead, some teachers are disguising sexually obscene material as desired subject matter and profess it has artistic and literary value. The literature being pushed on our students should disturb all of us and if you aren’t disturbed, I can only hope it is because you have not actually heard or seen the content.”
In November, Chapman shared a Facebook post calling for felony charges for educators distributing that material.
Iowa City Community School District Board Member J.P. Claussen said he thinks government leaders want to control which books are in school libraries because they are afraid to have conversations about these books.
“I also think it is no coincidence that the books they choose, usually centered around LGBTQ themes, or themes dealing with students of color, or people of color,” Claussen said. “And so, I think that’s what’s behind it is that certain segments of our society just don’t want to talk about issues they find challenging or difficult.”
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in her Condition of the State address on Jan. 11 that some educators are pushing their worldview onto students and parents should be involved in their children’s education. She proposed legislation requiring school districts to list books available in school libraries and a process for parents to report a book, as well as including academic standards, textbooks, and syllabi on district websites.
Claussen said at first glance, Reynolds’s idea to publish a syllabus is a harmless idea, but once someone keeps reading, there can be problematic encounters.
“The problem is, when you put things out, and then they’re used against you, right?” Claussen said. “And they’re used in a way where people who have a specific agenda are going to pull things out of context, which is exactly what they’re doing with these books — pulling these most sensational things completely out of context and that changes the meaning.”
Claussen said teachers would feel that they need to avoid teaching certain topics in the fear of being attacked by the parents of their students.
“I think we need to talk about difficult topics,” Claussen said. “We need to teach our kids how to engage in conversation about difficult topics without getting polarized, without getting violent.”
There are several Republican-led proposed bills that could potentially limit topics students would learn about or teachers would be required to address.
House File 2053 states a teacher cannot be required to affirm the existence of systemic racism, fluid gender identities, or other similar topics if it goes against the educator’s religious or philosophical beliefs.
House File 2054 would allow for students to be excused from lectures concerning sexual orientation or gender identity. House File 2060 would require the Iowa Department of Education to review and approve educational material used in social studies class before it is used the first time.
In response, Democrats are proposing an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that would guarantee a “right to read” by prohibiting the general assembly from making laws restricting educational material.
Claussen said schools should be a safe place for students to feel they can be who they want to be.
He added that actions like these are harmful for students.
“School really needs to be a safe place for everyone, right?” Claussen said. “And for a lot of kids, especially if they don’t have a validating home environment, school might be where they learn about stuff, they learn about their identity, they’re able to connect with other stories that resonate with them. And that’s important, because all of our kids need to be seen.”