The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa schools face book challenges without guidance from state officials

As the trend of book challenges grows nationwide, Iowa schools have become a litmus test.
Greg Derr/ Patriot Ledger / USA TODAY NETWORK
“This Book is Gay” at the Braintree Public Library on Wednesday February 15, 2023

After a few short weeks into the school year, school librarians and administrators are facing challenges complying with a new Iowa law that restricts books, classroom instruction, and instructional material containing content of sex acts and gender identity. 

Senate File 496, which was signed into Iowa law last May, prohibits the use of curriculum or materials containing sexual content or discussion about gender identity. Iowa schools have not yet received any official guidance from the Iowa Department of Education, leaving school districts to interpret the law. 

This has led some districts, like the Urbandale Community School District of Urbandale, Iowa, a suburb of Des Moines, to preemptively remove 374 books containing sexual references and talks of gender identity from its libraries and classrooms. 

Other school districts have decided to wait until they receive guidance from the Iowa Department of Education. 

While Iowa schools wait for guidance from state officials, book challenges from members of the public and local officials continue to rise nationwide. According to data collected by the American Library Association, there were 1,269 individual attempts to challenge books in public and school libraries in 2022, which is more than double the number of challenges to books in 2021. 

Book challenges growing as conservative priority

In 2022, over 2,500 unique titles were challenged nationwide, with 58 percent of challenged materials belonging to school libraries and classrooms. 

The state of Texas challenged the most books, with 93 attempts to challenge titles in public libraries. Iowa ranks at No. 21 out of 50 states in the number of book challenges in 2022. 

Jackie Biger, a professor and librarian program administrator at the University of Iowa School of Library and Information Sciences, said book challenges are commonplace in libraries around the country. 

All schools have a process for reconsideration, which happens after a parent or community member raises concerns about a book in a school library or classroom. The book is reviewed by a panel of school employees and stakeholders that decide the book’s fate based on school district procedures, she said. 

Though Iowa isn’t among the states with the most individual book challenges, Iowa ranks number two in the most library-adverse legislation with 10 library-adverse bills in 2023 — two of which were signed into law — according to a legislation tracker by the American Library Association.  

Sam Helmick, who works for the Iowa City Public Library and serves as the Iowa Library Association president, said the increase in book challenges and library adverse legislation points to a conservative movement to censor certain topics. 

Over 90 percent of the book challenges in 2022 were part of attempts to ban multiple titles, and 40 percent of those were challenges of 100 or more titles, according to American Library Association data. 

National groups like Moms for Liberty, a conservative group focused on conservative education policy, have become part of a national organized censorship movement. 

Legislation surrounding education and “wokeness” in schools have become popular topics among conservatives. Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds made ending “wokeness” in schools and other conservative education priorities like school choice, and legislation that targets LGBTQ+ youth and students her legislative priorities this year.  

Senate File 496 was proposed by Reynolds after her Condition of the State address in January and made its way through the Iowa Senate and House with conservative support. Republicans held a supermajority in the Iowa Senate and a strong majority in the House, allowing them to pass the governor’s priorities without much challenge. 

SF 496 passed the Iowa Senate 34-16, on party lines, and passed the Iowa House 55-42, with some Republicans voting against the bill.

Teresa Horton Bumgarner, the chair of the Johnson County Republicans, said she was in favor of the education bills passed last session, like SF 496, because it’s common sense legislation.

“We’re not talking about taking things away,” she said. “We’re talking about not putting pornographic things in front of children.”

Books with LGBTQ+ or racial themes targeted

Sara Hayden Parris, the founder and president of Annie’s Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at advocating against book challenges, said she wholeheartedly believes in the freedom to learn and see representation in books.

Over 80 percent of the books challenged in Iowa in the past three years were written by LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color, according to an investigation by the Des Moines Register. 

“Students thrive mentally and emotionally when they have access to books and materials that they identify with and they see themselves in,” Hayden Parris said. 

Hayden Parris said that the exclusion of stories and authors with underrepresented stories sends a message to Iowa children. 

Jordan Mix, the director of educational programming at Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit that advocates for equity in Iowa schools for LGBTQ+ youth, said the new law targets LGBTQ+ stories and educational materials. 

Mix said parents of LGBTQ+ students in Iowa are distressed at this new law and the growing targeting of LGBTQ+ themes. 

Biger, a library sciences professor, said when students see themselves in the books they are reading it can help foster a love for reading. 

“There is magic in matching a reader to a book and everyone deserves to see themselves, their experiences, their lives, reflected in what they’re reading in their library collections,” Biger said. “Depending on how the law is being interpreted there is a whole array of emotions.” 

The law states that schools must have age-appropriate materials in their libraries and defines age-appropriate as not including depictions of sex acts. 

The Iowa Department of Education has yet to provide guidance to school districts on this new law and has not provided them with a timeline for this guidance, according to the Iowa Library Association. 

Schools lack guidance from state

Without guidance from the Iowa Department of Education, Iowa schools are left to interpret the law on their own. This has resulted in differing rules, procedures, and processes across the state. 

The Iowa Library Association, in partnership with the School Library Association, sent a letter of inquiry to the Iowa Department of Education asking for clear guidelines and guidance for Iowa school libraries regarding the new state law. 

The Iowa Library Association and Iowa school districts have yet to receive a response or guidance from the Department of Education. 

Helmick said the lack of guidance from the state puts librarians, school districts, and administrators in charge of deciding how to comply with the law. 

They said the state usurped local control on book reconsideration with this new law and then failed to produce guidance on how to comply with it. 

“[The legislature] kind of painted school districts and teacher librarians into a corner, so it didn’t feel appropriate to try to paint ourselves out without guidance,” Helmick said. “That guidance didn’t come.” 

Iowa City Community School District has only had one book removed from its libraries. The book titled “This book is gay” was removed in March of this year after the district received multiple bomb threats.

RELATED: Iowa City Community School District to remove controversial book following bomb threats 

The book was also removed from Sioux City Schools after Libs of TikTok, a conservative social media account, mentioned Sioux City Schools in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. The book received criticism in the post’s replies for its depictions of gay sex and encouraging gay sex apps. 

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Iowa City Schools Spokesperson Kristin Pedersen said the district is working with lawyers, administrators, librarians, and teachers to comply with the new law. 

“Our curriculum and administrative teams are collaborating with their counterparts across the state to navigate this new legislation,” Pedersen wrote.  

Helmick said if there is no guidance librarians and school districts will only have their personal perspective to rely on making these choices. Helmick said with differing interpretations some schools are restricting more books, and others are waiting for more guidance, but either way, they said, it tells students “what to think, not how to think.” 

“We’re not equipping our students to confront ideas that are agitating ideas that might be contrary to their personal beliefs,” Helmick said. “It’s not really equipping them for the world.”

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About the Contributor
Liam Halawith, Senior Politics and News Editor
Liam Halawith is a third-year student at the University of Iowa studying Journalism and Mass Communication and minoring in Political Science. Before his role as Senior Politics and News Editor, Liam was the Politics Editor and a politics reporter for the DI. Outside of the DI Liam has interned at the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Southeast Iowa Union. This is his second year working for the DI.