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Iowa Education Department Postpones Equity Conference In Response To 'Divisive Concepts' Bill

Iowa’a Capitol after a late after noon spring rain.
John Pemble
IPR file
The Iowa Department of Education has postponed an equity conference for educators in response to GOP-backed legislation that would ban teaching certain “divisive concepts”

The Iowa Department of Education has postponed its “Social Justice and Equity in Education Conference” in response to GOP-backed legislation that would ban teaching certain “divisive concepts” in government agency diversity training and school curriculum.

Concepts that would be off limits under the bill include teaching “that the U.S. and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.” It also bans “race or sex scapegoating,” teaching that “an individual, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” as well as several other concepts.

The bill has not been sent to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ desk. The chair of the Senate Education Committee recently said she is working on a possible amendment to the bill that was passed by House Republicans in March.

“We are mindful of pending legislation that may impact the delivery and content of certain topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion and postponing the conference will ensure the department and Iowa’s educators are best positioned to comply with any legislation,” department spokesperson Heather Doe said in an emailed statement. “The Department of Education is committed to our individual and collective work to create places of exceptional learning and opportunity for all students. We will move forward with a planned face-to-face conference this fall where we will continue to foster equity in education.”

Even if it’s ultimately signed into law, the bill as currently written would take effect July 1, long after the initial planned conference date of April 14. According to a spokesperson for Reynolds’ office, education department officials made the decision to postpone the conference.

Tom Rendon, a retired education department official, said he was scheduled to give a presentation focused on equity in early education at the conference.

“What concerned me was that the work we do here in education—and equity, I think, is an important part of it, especially in early childhood—is being hindered even before this House File 802 becomes law,” Rendon said.

He said he believes education department officials are “trying to cope with a difficult situation.”

Rendon added the language in the bill is vague, and could be interpreted to prohibit discussions of systemic racism.

“One of the things that we would contend in our presentation is that there has been historic racism in the way systems have functioned,” Rendon said. “And therefore, do we say that that didn’t happen? Do we just not talk about it? That’s sort of where I’m left a little confused.”

He said one aspect of his planned presentation was to talk about how boys of color are disproportionately suspended and expelled from early childhood programs, and he wondered how the bill might affect his ability to talk about the structural racism that drives these disparities.

Katrina Cummings is an assistant professor in Simpson College’s Teacher Education Department. She was also supposed to be a presenter at the conference.

“If teachers aren’t prepared to be responsive to diversity, to differences, because there’s a lack of training, or limited scope of training, I think that could have a great impact on teacher competence, as well as the experience of their students,” Cummings said.

Cummings also expressed concern that the conference was postponed before there is a law in place that could interfere with it.

“Is it going to get worse?” Cummings asked. “Is there going to be fear around talking about such topics? Are people going to stand up and actually advocate for the inclusion of such topics in the coming years?”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, managed the bill’s passage in the House. He did not return a request for comment Friday.

Rep. Ras Smith of Waterloo is the top Democrat on the House Education Committee and was slated to be the keynote speaker at the equity conference. In a statement, he said he is disappointed the conference was postponed.

"The GOP's denial that racism and sexism exist in Iowa denies us all the opportunity to right historical wrongs, address head-on the hate crimes that are on the rise today, and leave a legacy for future generations of equity and justice for all," Smith said.

During House debate, Republican supporters of the bill said they want diversity and equity training, and difficult conversations about racism and sexism, to continue. But they said they had concerns about how those concepts are being taught.

Democratic lawmakers opposed the bill, saying it would deny the existence of systemic racism and implicit bias.

Rendon said the bill, as well as the House Government Oversight Committee hearing in which some Republican lawmakers interrogated Ames school district officials for having a “Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action,” could have a chilling effect on diversity and inclusion efforts in education.

This story was updated Tuesday, April 6 at 8:28 p.m.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter