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Iowa conservatives rail against the teaching of controversial topics in public schools because they don’t want teachers “indoctrinating” students. But a recent flare-up in the Baxter Community School District makes clear who’s really out to indoctrinate our young people: radical activist groups attacking students’ freedom to learn.
For the past 18 months, nearly two hundred “educational gag orders” – proposed legislative bans on discussing so-called “divisive concepts” in the classroom – have assailed public school districts across the country. These restrictions on teaching and learning are now in effect in 19 states.
But even compared with brazen efforts to censor classrooms in other states, what happened in Baxter last month was shocking.
Iowa was one of the first states to pass a “divisive concepts” bill, HF 802, in March 2021. At the time, Gov. Kim Reynolds said she was “proud” to have worked with the legislature to prevent “discriminatory indoctrination.” State Sen. Amy Sinclair, whose district is just 20 minutes from Baxter, said she voted for the bill because it “targets curriculum that indoctrinates children.”
Last month, Baxter’s school superintendent received a letter from the Washington, DC-based America First Policy Institute seeking to ban an elective course on “Social Justice in Literature.”
The course description makes no mention of any “divisive concepts” and it has no set curriculum. Students choose the books they want to read for the course, with the teacher approving them based only on grade level and irrespective of their content or viewpoint.
So how can a course that mentions no prohibited concepts and assigns no curricular materials violate HF 802? Simple, AFPI explains: the course fails to prohibit students from reading books that might include these so-called divisive concepts.
According to AFPI’s maximalist interpretation, HF 802 requires an absolute ban on students reading books in school that contain “CRT concepts” – and requires teachers to engage in content- and viewpoint-based censorship.
Never mind that the statute extends the ban only to “curriculum,” or that its intent, according to Gov. Reynolds, was to ban “indoctrination.” The letter argues in favor of its own form of indoctrination enforced by teachers as agents of the state, violating students’ right to access information and ideas.
Advocates of educational gag orders note that constitutional law is murky on the question of whether K-12 teachers have First Amendment rights in the classroom. But students unquestionably do have such rights – and enforcing HF 802 in the manner the letter suggests would strip those rights away.
The AFPI letter is not a fringe document. Indeed, it seems to represent an institutional consensus within the conservative movement. The America First Policy Institute counts former Republican governors Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Phil Bryant, conservative stars Kellyanne Conway and Pam Bondi, and a host of Trump Administration alumni among its leadership.
Those of us who value the First Amendment should recognize the AFPI letter for what it is: proof that the real purpose of “divisive concepts” bills is to indoctrinate students by restricting their right to read and learn.
Jeremy C. Young is senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America.