116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Something feels different about this school board election.
There are of course the typical conversations about funding and budgets, classroom sizes and boundary lines. The difference begins to take shape once candidates discuss their motives for becoming involved in school politics; across the state, citizens are formally entering the political process to object to mask mandates and honest conversations about the history of race in this country. These issues are taking center stage in school board races nationwide, as hyperpartisanship infiltrates more completely the lives of our children.
Four years ago when this term began, each seat in the Cedar Rapids Community School District was decided by less than 3,500 total votes.
Sometimes, the language is coded: an allusion to parents who don’t feel “heard” by the district, a vague reference to “traditional” education. And then there’s Waukee, where four candidates claiming to be nonpartisan have formed a PAC to pool resources and campaign together. The group has been vocal about their opposition to both mask mandates and Critical Race Theory — the post graduate level educational approach that has never been a component of Iowa K-12 public education, yet was the subject of House File 802 signed into Iowa law on June 8 of this year.
Des Moines law firm Ahlers Cooney represents over 250 of Iowa’s school districts, including the 10 largest in the state. The firm facilitated a webinar related to HF 802 to assist the districts they serve in navigating lessons involving race in light of the new legislation. Some of the more absurd portions of the webinar are attributable to the law itself, which as written includes the prohibition of discussion of so-called divisive topics including systemic racism (like redlining), unconscious bias and the shortfalls (and harm done) by a colorblind approach. To several items on the divisive topics list, the recommendation was that prohibited topics could actually be discussed so long as educators don’t confirm the specific statements outlined by the law.
For example: did redlining exist? Yes. Was redlining a system of exclusion that relegated Black Americans to a lower quality of life? Yes. Did Iowa communities engage in the practice of redlining? Absolutely. Has Iowa then engaged in systemic racism? Now that’s a bridge too far.
Other components of the firm’s interpretation are unfortunately worded, including a statement that “things that may have occurred such as slavery and segregation, that may be viewed to some as being racist”
Among the responsibilities of a school board is managing the district’s superintendent. According to the recent law, “the superintendent ... shall ensure that any curriculum or mandatory staff or student training provided by an employee of the school district or by a contractor hired by the school district does not teach, advocate, encourage, promote, or act upon specific stereotyping and scapegoating toward others on the basis of demographic group membership or identity.” Those we elect to school boards must hold the superintendent accountable to adhering to interpretation of what is a murky, confusing law that even an AV-rated award-winning century-old law firm well versed in educational legislation struggled to clearly explain to those who must enforce it.
The law belies a fixation on avoiding feelings of guilt or shame that has never been part of Iowa curriculum, although those feelings may indeed arise when a person learns that the benefits they have been offered in society are not equitably available to everyone. A similar law has resulted in a firestorm of controversy in Texas where a school administrator advised teachers to offer students “opposing viewpoints” on the Holocaust.
HF 802 amounts to a highly politicized scare tactic heightening hysteria around the threat that never was. If that distraction from actual issues affecting our students like the pandemic education gap or Iowa’s child hunger statistics weren’t enough, we can busy ourselves arguing over whether or not our children — particularly those too young for vaccination — should have the most basic measure of protection against the pandemic that has held our planet in a chokehold for approaching two years. Consensus could be found at the North Scott school board forum, where every single candidate opposed masks in public schools. Here in Cedar Rapids, the issue was raised at the League of Women Voters forum as well, although the board did not make the decision to mandate masks in the first place.
Over dinner a week ago, a friend recounted her child’s experience with a classmate who wanted to wear a mask. Her 11-year-old daughter explained, “She wants to wear one, but her dad said she would be in big trouble if he caught her with a mask on.”
Four years ago when this term began, each seat in the Cedar Rapids Community School District was decided by less than 3,500 total votes. This election feels different because it is different; our duty to advocate in the best interest of the children remains.
Sofia DeMartino is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org