Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iowa Group Providing Support To Teachers Concerned About 'Divisive Concepts' Law

An Iowa advocacy group is providing resources and support to teachers concerned about a new state law that bans the teaching of certain concepts, including that the U.S. or Iowa are systemically racist or sexist.

An Iowa advocacy group is providing support to teachers who feel targeted by a new state law that limits certain teachings on racism and sexism. The so-called “divisive concepts” law signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds on June 8 is one of a series of similar laws across the country constraining the ways that teachers can discuss racism and sexism in their classrooms.

Iowa’s “divisive concepts” law bans public schools and government agencies from promoting certain ideas in their teachings or trainings, including that the U.S. and Iowa are systemically racist or sexist.

Similar laws across the country are drawing fire from teachers and historians, who say the measures will stifle difficult conversations about the country’s bitter legacy of slavery, segregation and racial exclusion.

A coalition including the American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association, the Association of American Colleges & Universities and PEN America recently put out a joint statement opposing the legislation across the country, describing the measures as “deeply troubling."

“The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students “discomfort” because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject,” the letter reads in part. “But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement.”

Iowans are joining in national efforts to oppose the slate of measures. The group Black Lives Matter at School Iowa recently held a town hall on the issue and is encouraging teachers to sign a national 'Pledge to Teach the Truth.'

“I refuse to lie to my students about US History. Iowa has passed a law banning the truth and I can't stand for it,” Dominique Akpore of Fort Madison wrote on the petition.

The new Iowa law says that it does not prohibit teaching on the topics of sexism, slavery, racial oppression, segregation or discrimination. But Lisa Covington, a University of Iowa PhD candidate in the sociology of education and a member of Black Lives Matter at School Iowa, says the law will have a chilling effect on teachers.

“It’s important to note the objective of the laws, right? Because really it prohibits teachers from being able to teach facts, right? In order to do their jobs. And so we really should care about supporting teachers to help build a more equitable and inclusive society,” Covington said.

Covington says that while the law seeks to distort teaching on the country’s past, she worries it will also deny students the ability to critically analyze modern society and confront and dismantle inequities of today.

“They really attempt to deny students models of activism for making our communities more fair and just today, right?” Covington said. “If you care about democracy, you should care about this attack on public education.”

Some of the laws have targeted critical race theory, which Republican lawmakers have alleged is taught broadly in public schools, which educators have disputed. Critical race theory is an academic approach developed in the legal field and largely taught in law schools and other graduate-level settings that examines the intersectional impacts of race and racism throughout society.

Conservatives have made the issue among the latest battles in the culture wars, claiming it’s divisive to teach students about the impacts of racism they may not recognize otherwise.

“Critical race theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. It teaches kids that we should judge others based on race, gender or sexual identity, rather than the content of someone’s character,” Reynolds said in a statement upon signing the law. “I am proud to have worked with the legislature to promote learning, not discriminatory indoctrination.”

It’s among the latest efforts by Republican lawmakers across the country to target critical and comprehensive analyses of the lasting impacts of slavery and racism in the U.S. Lawmakers have also targeted The 1619 Project, an ongoing reporting effort from The New York Times Magazine spearheaded by Waterloo native Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of [B]lack Americans at the very center of our national narrative."

Hannah-Jones came up through Waterloo’s public schools and has spoken about the integral role a high school teacher played in setting her on the path of documenting how the legacy of slavery has shaped so many of the country’s institutions.

While Iowa’s law does not specifically reference critical race theory or The 1619 Project, Covington argues that it’s implied. She says that knowing that Hannah-Jones’ formative years were spent in Iowa’s public schools makes the potential impacts of the state’s new law hit home.

“I think that it can be very difficult for teachers to teach in this environment, especially since systemic racism and sexism are not hypothetical. They are facts backed up by data, state data even,” Covington said. “Knowing the truth about the past can help create a just future so that students can build that, be a part of building that future as opposed to denying it.”

Covington said Black Lives Matter at School Iowa is providing resources and support to concerned teachers and is keeping tabs on any guidance from school districts.

An Iowa Department of Education spokesperson did not provide answers to questions on whether the agency is developing guidance or has received inquiries from local districts.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter