Iowa GOP lawmakers want their politics in your kid's classroom

Ed Tibbetts, a longtime reporter and editor in the Quad-Cities, is the publisher of the Along the Mississippi newsletter, where this article first appeared. Find more of his work at

Republicans in the Iowa legislature say they don’t want politics in your kid’s classroom. But that’s not true. They don’t mind politics in your kid’s classroom—as long as it’s their politics.

The proof was in full view on February 28 in the Iowa House.

First, Republicans passed House File 2617, which would force Iowa schools to show students in 7th through 12th grades a fetal development video similar to the “Meet Baby Olivia” video produced by the anti-abortion group Live Action. The Washington Post has reported that the group opposes abortion in all cases. The video is making the rounds of Republican-controlled legislatures; medical groups have said it contains inaccurate information.

Then, Republicans approved House File 2544, a history and civics bill that would force teachers to adopt curriculum that was copied, in large part word for word, from a right-wing education alliance. (Only three Republicans voted against the bill.)

I wrote about this bill a couple of weeks ago. The curriculum in House File 2544 (formerly House File 2330) is carefully selected. The authors emphasize certain people and parts of U.S. history, while ignoring others. It demands teaching the “civic virtues” of Ronald Reagan but doesn’t mention Franklin Roosevelt. It requires teaching the benefits of free enterprise and the failings of the economic systems of communist regimes. But it is silent about the flaws of capitalism. It mandates teaching about several wars in U.S. history but doesn’t list the Vietnam War.

It cites two dozen Americans exemplifying civic virtues, but only two women are on the list.

The last document on the reading list was written 160 years ago.

The bill doesn’t mention Jim Crow laws at all.

Legislative Republicans had no answers to this kind of critique during debate Wednesday night, even as they insisted the teaching of history in Iowa schools would be fair and balanced.

What’s more important: they had no answers to the very practical concerns educators have expressed about how to implement this plan.

The Iowa Council for the Social Studies pointed out the bill’s requirements would leave no room for the study of geography, sociology, or other social studies electives. The council also said the prescribed menu of readings is so extensive it would only allow kids to scratch the surface, and that some of the material is beyond the comprehension of many students.

Consider just the introduction to Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” which is one of the works 5th and 6th graders will be required to study:

Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor; a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason.

As a long and violent abuse of power, is generally the Means of calling the right of it in question (and in matters too which might never have been thought of, had not the Sufferers been aggravated into the inquiry) and as the King of England had undertaken in his own Right, to support the Parliament in what he calls Theirs, and as the good people of this country are grievously oppressed by the combination, they have an undoubted privilege to inquire into the pretensions of both, and equally to reject the usurpation of either.

Think your kid will understand that? Will it inspire him or her to want to learn more?

It’s true this is only the opening to “Common Sense,” but as the American Historical Association said in a letter to Iowa House members, “even the brightest fifth graders will struggle to comprehend” Paine’s work.

Yet, our legislators believe they know better than your kid’s teacher.

Perhaps just as importantly, the AHA points out that the Republican legislation stomps on the process that former Governor Terry Branstad set up in 2013 so that neither “the federal government or any other organization” would determine Iowa’s academic standards. Instead, Branstad (with Kim Reynolds as the lieutenant governor) signed an executive order putting in place a system for developing state standards, while leaving decisions related to curriculum to local school districts.

At the very heart of this process are Iowa educators and everyday Iowans.

In fact, it was nearly seven years ago that the state board of education adopted new social studies standards. I’d like to think Governor Reynolds has enough respect for the members of the board not to let some out-of-state think tank just obliterate their work.

The thing is, I tend to agree with the idea that Iowa’s education standards don’t have enough content. It seems to me that if the governor agrees with her GOP colleagues in the Legislature and wants further revision, she could encourage members of the board, many of whom she appointed, to move in this direction using the process that was set up 10 years ago.

As I study the debate over the merits of an inquiry-based approach to history and civics versus a more content-based method, my middle-aged brain thinks we need more traditional content. But I concede I’m not a professional educator. I love reading history, but I don’t know how to teach it or inspire kids to learn it.

There are professionals who do this, with the input of Iowans from across the spectrum. Which is exactly the process the Branstad/Reynolds administration set up with Executive Order 83 a decade ago. And that’s exactly what House Republicans, through the raw use of their political power, voted to toss out the window Wednesday evening.

Like I said, Republicans in the Iowa legislature frequently complain about educators injecting politics into the classroom. But they don’t mind one bit shoving their own politics down your kid’s throat. The question is, do you?

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: Two House Republicans (Chad Ingels and Tom Moore) voted with Democrats against the “Meet Baby Olivia” bill. Three Republicans (Ingels, Moore, and Brent Siegrist) voted with Democrats against the history curriculum requirements.

Top photo: Teacher and students in a classroom at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines in October 2014. Photo first published on the Des Moines Public Schools’ Flickr account.

About the Author(s)

Ed Tibbetts

  • Looking Back

    When I was in 6th grade, our teacher encouraged the class to write a letter to President Nixon in support of Lt. William Calley.

    Calley was a U.S. Army officer convicted by court-martial for the murder of 22 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai massacre in 1968.

    My teacher’s request sounded reasonable to me. When I told my family about my letter, my older siblings shared a more expansive understanding of what occurred in that hamlet.

    Did my folks go off on the teacher, contact the principal or engage the school board? Nah.

    They just figured I learned something that day. The teacher was a good teacher who just got a bit caught up in the emotion of the issue.

    My point . . . except for extraordinary circumstances, let’s let teachers teach. If we don’t, they’ll find states that respect them for the professionals they are.

    It’s been working just fine for decades.

  • someone's politics will be in the classroom

    as public schools are as they say “government” schools so choices about curriculum are necessarily political, and respect for higher ed isn’t a shared value these days (if ever) so we can’t count on votes for the kinds of knowledge that comes with advanced degrees (or any degree really) from this mob. We are going to need a whole lot of help from civil society groups and mutual aid to try and fill in some of what they are stripping away until the feds or the next generation of voters can bail us out.

  • K-12 kids couldn’t talk with the Founding Fathers

    Tibbets rightly complains that winners are bending history their way. This happens often. What is more disturbing is the idea that our K-12 wouldn’t understand the language of our Founding Fathers, even with the help and guidance of teachers.

    Watch the State of the Union Thursday. Compare the language and thoughts with those in speeches by Kennedy or Eisenhower. If kids can no longer understand adults it is because even the current Presidents talks like fifth graders.

  • “No more protests,” says House GOP

    Apparently, the minds and hearts of a majority of us Iowans has dried up. No where more evident than in the Iowa Legislature.

    In Sunday’s The Gazette, Columnist Todd Dorman shines his light on a bill that passed in the Iowa House. The bill would water down middle school and high school history and social studies curricula into rudimentary myths and legends. Did George Washington really cut down the cherry tree?

    And, as Dorman clarifies, the bill would ban teaching “action civics,” the ways and means of nonviolent protest, assembly and speech, which I always thought were guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  • Todd Dorman is a rare voice of sanity (our good host another) in the local press

    but the question at hand as I understand it is not about the ways and means of protest but the organizing of in the classroom, though our current rulers are certainly trying to make it illegal to protest (or even investigate) their wicked ways…

  • Two high school teachers encouraged my interest in conservation activism when I was sixteen...

    …back when I spoke at a city council meeting regarding a pesticide which has since been banned. The teachers did not push activism, but encouraged my existing interest. All our conversations were after class. But I suppose a law like the one proposed might have discouraged even that. I remain grateful to those teachers after decades of conservation work. And thank you to the good Iowa teachers who intend to keep working here in spite of what is being thrown at them by the Statehouse.

    And speaking of politics in the classroom, I’d be interested in a journalistic look at what the program “Agriculture In The Classroom” is teaching Iowa public school students. Below is a list of the sponsors. One Iowa lesson plan is called “Farmers Are Superheroes Too!”