Iowa Republicans take a wrecking ball to education

Dan Henderson is a lifelong Iowan, retired educator (taught history for 30 years), writer, author, and community activist, living in Washington. A version of this post first appeared on his Substack newsletter, Things We Don't Talk About Like Politics & Religion.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, along with her MAGA Republican colleagues in the statehouse, are rushing to try and outdo Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida in taking a wrecking ball to public education. This goal of Republican extremists stems from the conspiracy theories they see under every bush and in every classroom, as well as their basic mistrust for public school educators.

The GOP trifecta passed a historic private school voucher bill in January. It will siphon hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools, directing them toward private schools with no strings attached. No accountability, no mandates, no assurance that the money will be spent on students and their educational needs. It is a bonanza for private religious schools, and for-profit schools that will now see Iowa as fertile ground for their scam institutions.

But the wrecking ball doesn’t stop there.

Last month, Iowa House Republicans listed their top thirteen priorities for the 2023 session. Eight of them are related to public education (K-12 schools or the three state universities). Here is a quick rundown on some of their education plans:

House File 4 provides an alternative to teacher licensing, making it easier to obtain credentials to teach. With this legislation, Republicans are trying to solve a problem largely of their own making. Iowa and the county are experiencing a teacher shortage, in part because of the war Republicans have waged on public education. Teachers are harrassed and demeaned, and have been called “sinister” or groomers by influential lawmakers. Not surprisingly, many are quitting.

House File 5 is the “curriculum transparency” bill, which would require schools to post all of their teaching materials online so parents can review them. In addition, libraries would be required to list all books online, so parents can review them and request some be removed. Not only are these requirements onerous and time consuming, the bill contains no funding to help schools meet this requirement. (A nonpartisan analysis of a similar bill last year estimated the statewide cost to school districts would be $27.4 million.)

Republicans would never hoist this kind of unfunded mandate on private schools. It is another manifestation of their mistrust of public schools and educators. Most school boards already have policies to allow parents to review teaching materials or library books. So Republicans would create draconian solutions for non-existent problems.

I’ll come back to House File 7...wait till you see that one.

House File 8 prohibits instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation to children in grades K-3.

Not to be outdone by Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill for children from kindergarten to third grade, Iowa is rushing to erase anything except heterosexual orientation. The bill suggests children would not be able to talk about their two mommies or two daddies. The implicit message is that any marriage except between a man and woman, is illicit or wrong. Some Republicans have claimed children need to be protected from “groomers”—you know, those sinister teachers who are trying to make children gay. 

House File 9 (later renumbered House File 180mandates parental notification on gender identity. This bill would prohibit school employees from keeping information about a student’s requested gender-transition or identity from the child’s parents. School employees would not be able to facilitate, encourage, or coerce students to withhold information from their parents.

While I am sympathetic to informing parents about important issues their children talk about at school, this bill looks like another attempt at erasure. It would force transgender students to be outed, even when parents could be abusive or violent when learning of the gender issue their child is facing. There is no requirement to encourage students to seek counseling or support—only reporting to parents. And it reduces gender to the assigned sex on the student’s birth certificate. 

House File 12 (later renumbered House File 132) would require instruction about "communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy that were essential to the founding of the United States." Either Republicans are worried our country is headed toward Communism, or they are trying to "own the libs," because liberals are all secret socialists. 

Reality check: most high school history and government classes already compare undemocratic forms of government such as fascism (not mentioned in the bill), monarchy, or communism with the American form of democracy. Again, the Iowa GOP has conjured up a fake solution to a non-existent problem—with no funding attached to help schools implement the new requirement.

Finally, here is the one I am really worried about:

House File 7 (later renumbered House File 182) demands more information about teacher preparation. Iowa MAGA Republicans so mistrust education that they want to “reform” how teachers are being trained. To that end, this bill would require Iowa's three state universities (the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa) to submit a report to the House Education Committee, explaining how their teacher prep programs address the following topics or issues:

  • Teaching with a humanizing orientation.
  • Education core pursuits that center equity.
  • Peacebuilding.
  • Reflective professionals.
  • Authentic formative assessment for economically, academically, culturally, racially,and linguistically diverse children.
  • Diverse perspectives in United States history.
  • Inquiry based Global competence education.
  • Teaching for prejudice reduction.
  • Education for informed and responsible global citizenship.
  • Critical media literacy.
  • Culturally responsive classroom.
  • Anti-oppressive literature instruction.
  • Anti-racist and anti-oppressive teaching and learning.
  • Support for educators committed to critical pedagogy and anti-racist and anti-oppressive education.
  • Equitable and democratic education.
  • How education is never neutral.
  • Choosing an explicit anti-oppressive stance.
  • Oppressive forces in education.
  • Diversity and identity in kindergarten through grade twelve education.
  • Compulsory heterosexuality.
  • Queer identities at all levels of kindergarten through grade twelve education

Once the universities submit their report, which is due by the end of February, the education committee would spend the year “studying” the results, and issue their own report and recommendations by December 31, 2023. That would set up a new round of draconian bills to be passed in the 2024 session.

If you read through this list, the purpose is clear. Iowa's MAGA Republicans want to re-create teacher preparation, so that teachers would no longer be trained to be sensitive to the varying cultural backgrounds of an increasingly diverse population. They would no longer receive training on taking an “anti-oppressive stance.” 

Maybe most important, they won’t be trained to teach diverse perspectives in U.S. history. This is about how to teach (or not teach) Black History. MAGA Republicans will likely attempt to create a teacher training program promoting “patriotic history” and “Americanism.” Talk of enslavement and Jim Crow would be relegated to a short paragraph of “unfortunate” events.

I wish I had better news to give you today. The next election isn’t until 2024, so Iowans will be subject to a MAGA Republican cabal for some time. My only hope is that the state's pragmatism, realism, and commitment to truth will prevail before this wrecking crew can finish the job.

Top image: Iowa capitol building in winter, photographed by Gregory Dixon and available via Shutterstock.

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  • Yes … yes

    “The next election isn’t until 2024, so Iowans will be subject to a MAGA Republican cabal for some time. My only hope is that the state's pragmatism, realism, and commitment to truth will prevail before this wrecking crew can finish the job.”

    I too “hope.” The legislation diminishes a teacher’s professional autonomy to zero. Reynolds et al want schools to be taught by MOMS for Liberty using a script that requires her to have no independent knowledge of the subject matter.

    We have depended on “pragmatism, realism, and commitment to truth” as our only political tool far too long. If these laws are passed youngsters will never have pragmatism, realism, and commitment to truth. The rightwing schooling wants to drain youngsters of wisdom and critical thinking.

    So, “pragmatism, realism, and commitment to truth” isn’t enough. If John Lewis relied only on these three soldiers, he would be barred from voting and his grandchildren still in segregated schools.

    People who care need to unite. Hit the streets. A simultaneous march on Terrace Hill from each corner of the state OR the like would be “good trouble.”

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