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Iowa's education department hasn't rescheduled its equity conference after saying it would

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John Pemble
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IPR file
The Iowa Department of Education has not rescheduled an equity conference that officials previously said would be postponed until this fall.

The Iowa Department of Education has not rescheduled its “Social Justice and Equity in Education Conference” that officials previously said would be postponed until this fall.

Early last spring, a department spokesperson said the conference—originally scheduled for April 14—was being postponed because of pending GOP-backed legislation that would put limits on teaching certain concepts related to racism and sexism.

“We will move forward with a planned face-to-face conference this fall where we will continue to foster equity in education,” department spokesperson Heather Doe said in April.

But the state education department has not moved forward with the conference.

“The equity conference has not yet been rescheduled,” Doe said in an email. “The Department is co-hosting a statewide conference this fall with the University of Iowa on another important topic—social-emotional-behavioral health. We limit the number of statewide conferences held during the school year in respect of educators’ and school administrators’ time away from the classroom and to ensure we can dedicate the staffing and resources needed to provide the highest quality programming.”

Doe did not respond to follow-up questions from IPR about whether the conference will be rescheduled in the future.

Tom Rendon, a former education department official, said he was scheduled to give a presentation at the conference in April. He said he has not heard anything from the education department about a new date, and he still thinks it’s an important conference to have.

“House File 802 has created a lot of questions about what can be taught around equity and what cannot be taught around equity,” Rendon said. “And so it becomes important to learn more about that.”

He said equity training could also help educators respond to the turmoil in some schools related to mask requirements.

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, is the top Democrat on the House Education Committee and is now running for governor. He was slated to be the keynote speaker at the April conference, and he said he has not heard from the department about a new date.

“It’s disappointing because I think there’s so much to be gained, especially when we’re seeing an uptick in diversity in our schools across the state,” Smith said.

Smith said the department should reschedule the conference. He also criticized Republican leaders for trying to dictate what can be taught in classrooms.

Limits on teaching certain concepts related to racism and sexism are now state law, but it’s not clear if the law has affected the rescheduling of the equity conference. It applies to mandatory government diversity trainings and to school curriculum.

“The overarching theme of the conference doesn’t seem to violate the law, and nothing that I can see that’s tangible seems to violate the law,” Smith said. “They just don’t want to have it or are too afraid to have it, and both things can be true.”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, led the passage of the law related to diversity training and education. He said he doesn’t think the law would prevent a conference about equity in education from taking place, and he doesn’t know why it wasn’t rescheduled.

“Unless an individual thinks, in order to teach diversity, we have to teach that there are only two groups of people, oppressor and oppressed, or that we have to teach to scapegoat entire groups of people, and that the United States of America in 2021 is inherently and systemically racist and sexist,” Holt said, listing some of the prohibited concepts.

Holt said students should be taught about racial discrimination in the country’s past.

During the 2021 legislative session, GOP lawmakers also tried to limit teaching about gender identity and the 1619 Project, and they interrogated Ames school district officials for having a “Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.”