State lawmakers debate “divisive concept” bills for schools
On Monday, Iowa high school students skipped class and gathered on the steps of the state capitol, speaking into megaphones through their masks. They held signs proclaiming “Ban the bills” and “We don’t want colonized edu,” The Des Moines Register reported.
Inside the gold-domed building behind them, Iowa lawmakers have been debating a bill to regulate how teachers discuss racism and sexism. Iowa is one of several states that have floated such “divisive concept” bills this year that aim to encourage open classroom discussion. The bills, which borrow from a now-rescinded executive order by President Donald Trump, have received a mixed reception. Their broad language has opponents worried that teachers will avoid controversial topics altogether, leaving gaps in students’ education.
The 2020 executive order aimed to control diversity training for federal employees. It banned federal agencies and contractors from training employees using divisive concepts, listing examples such as the idea that the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist and that any person is inherently oppressive. The order’s wide definition included “any other form” of race and sex-based stereotyping and scapegoating. It said people should not be encouraged to feel guilty because of their race or sex.
Several states have expanded the effort to classrooms. Louisiana’s bill, which covers elementary, secondary, or postsecondary schools that take state funding, bars student or employee training “that teaches, advocates, acts upon, or promotes divisive concepts.”
Opponents say the bills’ broad language will have a chilling effect on classrooms and diversity training, forcing teachers to tiptoe around controversial topics instead of helping students think through them. The Iowa Department of Education postponed its social justice and equity conference scheduled for mid-April out of concern it would run afoul of the bill. “One of the things that we would contend in our presentation is that there has been historic racism in the way systems have functioned,” conference presenter Tom Rendon told Iowa Public Radio. “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.”
Supporters say the bills are intended to keep teachers from presenting debated conclusions as fact without room for discussion. Iowa is also considering a bill to require First Amendment training for anyone with authority over students and allow schools to fire teachers who discriminate against students because of their opinions. Together, the two bills are intended to prevent situations like the one at Iowa State University last summer, when an English professor specified in her syllabus that students could not write essays arguing against gay marriage, abortion, or the Black Lives Matter movement.
Iowa Rep. Steven Holt, a Republican, said the divisive concept bill doesn’t prevent teachers from referencing systemic racism, but ensures that students are not taught to pigeonhole themselves based on race or sex. “I reject absolutely and with great enthusiasm the idea that we must adopt racist ideology—and scapegoat races of people, marking each individual as either ‘oppressor’ or ‘oppressed’—in order to stop racism and foster inclusiveness,” Holt said.
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