New education bill is a Frankenstein monster

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

What started as Governor Kim Reynolds’ bad idea has become worse. Her “parents’ rights” bill, passed by Republicans in the Iowa House and Senate, is back to the Senate because the versions differ. A committee of both may take up the bills—keeping the worst, I’m sure.

Des Moines Register reporter Katie Akin correctly characterized the House-approved version of Senate File 496 as “a Frankenstein-like education bill.” It’s like saying a giraffe has a long neck, a pig has a full stomach, or a shark has sharp teeth.

This monster has bite, and it chews an arm and leg off public education, educators, and each local school’s historic purposes and practices.

On these pages Bleeding Heartland editor Laura Belin detailed the bill’s components and compared the differences between the House and Senate versions. “When Reynolds introduced what her staff have called a "parental empowerment bill," Belin wrote, “one section proposed adding a new Iowa Code section about the rights of parents and guardians.” Key paragraph from page 11 of Senate Study Bill 1145:

A parent or guardian bears the ultimate responsibility, and has the constitutionally protected right, to make decisions affecting the parent's or guardian's minor child, including decisions related to the minor child's medical care, moral upbringing, religious upbringing, residence, education, and extracurricular activities.

Cited in Bleeding Heartland

Senate and House Republicans strengthened that passage to declare parents had a "fundamental, constitutionally protected right," adding that restrictions would be "subject to strict scrutiny" if challenged in court. But they carved out an exception for one of the laws they approved in March, targeting transgender children's health care.

The worst. One part of the bill (Section 14.1.b in the Senate version, Section 25.1.a in the House amendment) requires each public school district to "prominently display" on its website the process for requesting "the removal of a book, article, outline, handout, video, or other educational material available to students." That would create an avenue for a small minority of parents to deluge a district repeatedly with requests to remove instructional materials thought inappropriate, thereby inflicting instructional chaos through a thousand tiny cuts each meant to eventually reduce the curriculum to the 3Rs. No joke.

In Florida, school administrators must remove a lesson or a film if even one parent complains. New York Times opinion writer Charles Blow explained, “Giving so few parents so much power to take educational options away from other parents and children runs counter to the spirit of democracy and free inquiry, and enshrines a form of parental tyranny of the hypersensitive, the inexplicably aggrieved and the maliciously oppressive.” I don’t think these are unintended. Iowa is on that same track.

The bill is Reynolds’ poke in the eye of all who care about public schools, many of whom are Democrats. She wants to bring Iowa up to snuff, maybe a bit more so, in the esteem of other red-state governors, each trying to be the first to 100 percent crush public education. And, too, to (of course) crush the undefinable “wokeness” Republicans claim teachers use to indoctrinate vulnerable kids. The governor doesn’t want kids to mistake DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) and social justice lessons for church values. Or be led to believe the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 rejection of Jim Crow (Brown v Board of Education of Topeka) is authentic history.

As the Register reported, State Representative Skyler Wheeler, the House Education Committee chair who floor managed Senate File 496, said it would create "an incredible amount of trust between parents and schools. [...] Parents send their children to school to learn reading, math and writing. When they do this, they are putting trust into the school and the staff there.”

“Unfortunately,” Wheeler continued, “some of that trust has been broken due to schools pushing woke-ism."

Again, no one can say what “woke“ actually is. I take it to mean any instruction beyond the esteemed 3Rs.

I thought that when Iowa Republicans passed the governor’s schools voucher or "education savings accounts" bill, the goal was to pay parents to send their kids to a woke-free private school. So why do the governor and her people want to trash educators, school libraries, LBGTQ+ affirmation, American history, or social-emotional learning?

The answer may be found in Wheeler’s promise to his supporters when he first ran: “I am running for the Iowa House because I believe in continuing the fight to advance, promote and defend Christian conservative principles in Des Moines. I am a full-spectrum conservative who will defend the positions that matter most to Fourth District voters.”

I think Wheeler’s promise has found its way into legislation. The governor and her Republican colleagues promote Wheeler’s numerous “Christian conservative principles,” like their repugnance toward the LBGTQ+ community, contempt for transgender Iowans, and scorn for Black history. 

In the safety of the Moms for Liberty town hall in Des Moines in February, Reynolds said of her political adversaries:

They think that patriotism is racist and pornographic library books are education. [Protesters shout, and crowd chants "USA…USA…USA" to drown them out]

They believe that the content of our character is less important than the color of our skin. They believe children should be encouraged to pick their gender. And for the parents, well, they're just in the way. Well, maybe they did get that last part right.

But I do want to make one thing clear. [...] The vast majority of our educators—the ones that I talk to, and the ones that I know that you encounter every day—are doing great work. They want what we want, and that is the best for our children.

It is again, just a small, but loud minority that's trying to change our educational system and indoctrinate our children. So when you see educators who are doing what they should and they're doing it well, be sure to thank them, because we need these teachers, and we need them now more than ever.

Reynolds here is encouraging Iowans to slump into a medieval hysteria, to harbor unmerited suspicion of school teachers, and help her spread misinformation as boldly as any classic demagogue. That is dangerous to democracy.

Top "culture war" illustration by Lightspring, available via Shutterstock.

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