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A new Iowa law that bans teaching “divisive concepts” is having a “chilling effect” on culturally responsive teaching and diversity, equity and inclusion in K-12 schools, some Iowa education experts say.
The legislation, House File 802, bans Iowa governmental entities — including K-12 schools — and public colleges from teaching “divisive concepts,” including that moral character is determined by one’s race or sex, or that the United States and Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist. It was signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds in June 2021.
Upon signing it, Reynolds said that “Critical Race Theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. It teaches kids that we should judge others based on race, gender or sexual identity, rather than the content of someone’s character.”
Critical Race Theory is not actually mentioned in the law, said Melissa Peterson, government relations specialist for the Iowa State Education Association.
The idea behind Critical Race Theory is that race is a social construct and that racism is embedded in legal systems and policies. It was created by legal scholars in the late 1970s as a framework for legal analysis.
The theory also “doesn’t exist in the K-12 system,” Peterson said.
It’s a “national narrative to undermine public education” that Critical Race Theory is being taught and having “adverse effects” in K-12 schools, she said.
The ban on teaching “divisive concepts,” however, is causing confusion for educators on what they can and cannot teach.
“I believe we are seeing it in our classrooms since this legislation has passed — a chilling effect on our educators and they way they go about teaching our students.” Peterson said.
If conversations about systemic racism or sexism in the United States can’t be had in the classroom, how do educators talk to students about the opportunity gap between Black and white students or the wage gap between men and women, Peterson said.
“I truly believe that was the intent to steer the conversation away from some arguably challenging conversations so our students have an understanding of truth and history,” she said.
The law lists 10 divisive concepts banned from being taught, including:
- That one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.
- That the United States and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.
- That an individual, by virtue their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
- That an individual, by virtue of the their race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
- That any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.
“The intent of the legislation … is to ensure curriculum and staff training doesn’t do anything to advocate, encourage or stereotype or scapegoat as it applies to race or sex,” Peterson said. “We don’t think that was happening in our schools before.”
While no one should experience “psychological distress” in the classroom, there is a “level of unease” when being exposed to new ideas, Peterson said.
Black and brown students and historically underrepresented populations may already feel “psychological distress” in the classroom “because there can’t be honest and truthful conversations,” Peterson said.
Stephanie Jones, assistant professor of education at Grinnell College, said educators are being “legislatively admonished” for attempting to talk about racism.
Jones researches ways in which Black girls and women engage with literacies in and outside the classroom.
“My research is around how racial trauma shows up in school, in particular lessons teachers are doing that are harmful, but also in things teachers are refusing to talk about,” Jones said.
Teachers whose practices did not change as a result of House File 802 were likely not doing equity, diversity and inclusion work in their classroom before, Jones said.
Teacher candidates are “afraid” of repercussions they might face if they break the law, even unintentionally.
Margaret Buckton, legislative analyst and executive director for the Urban Education Network, said there are still “good conversations” happening in schools about equity.
However, Buckton said, “Momentum on really digging deep in to racial inequality was slowed by this.”
"The fear is students are being indoctrinated to think a certain way, and I don’t see that happening in schools,“ Buckton said.
The law is not derailing the Iowa City Community School District’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, district communication director Kristin Pedersen said in a statement.
“As a district, we will always follow the laws set forth by state and federal agencies and we are aware of the requirements outlined in House File 802,” Pedersen said.
“We are mindful of these requirements in our curricular work as we continue to develop high-quality learning experiences for all students and professional development for teachers and staff.”
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