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Fines proposed for Iowa schools that violate ‘divisive concepts’ law
A Republican state lawmaker asserts some schools are ignoring the 2021 law
DES MOINES — Iowa schools are prohibited from teaching so-called “divisive concepts” under a state law passed in 2021, but now some Republican state lawmakers are looking to put some teeth on the law by adding fines for educators who violate it.
School districts would be fined between $500 and $5,000 if they are found in violation of the divisive concepts law, under a proposal that received its first legislative approval Wednesday from Iowa House Republicans at the Iowa Capitol.
The 2021 law defines divisive concepts and includes, for example, teaching students that moral character is determined by one’s race or sex, or that the United States and Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist.
Steve Holt, a Republican from Denison, said the proposal to add fines is needed because he believes some school districts — he did not name any — are violating the divisive concepts law.
“It would appear to us that this hasn’t been complied with in some school districts, that it has been blatantly ignored in some school districts, or that they’re just simply trying to play word games and keep doing the same thing,” Holt said during Wednesday’s legislative hearing on the proposal.
Opponents of the proposal said it does not provide due process for educators who are accused of violating the divisive concepts law. The legislation states that once a complaint is lodged, the state education department will make a ruling; there is no provision for the school district or educator in question to state their case.
“There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of due process protections for the educators in this. It seems like it’s just: there’s an accusation, someone decides whether or not they did it, and that’s it,” said Keenan Crow, with the LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa.
Education groups also raised concerns over a provision in the proposed legislation that would require the state education department to accept from students and parents reports of possible violations of the divisive concepts law, and require the department to compile those allegations and report them to lawmakers. Such a report would be a public document.
Michelle Johnson, with the Iowa Association of School Boards, said that requirement could produce a report that “suggests wrongdoing before anything is proven.”
And a spokesperson for the state education department said the department would not be able to handle the anticipated volume of reports of possible violations in an adequate time frame without adding more employees.
Holt and Rep. Skyler Wheeler, a Republican from Hull who chairs the House education committee, signed off on advancing the House Study Bill 112, which becomes eligible for consideration by the House education committee. Holt said he is cognizant of some of the concerns raised, and signaled a willingness to address some of them in the bill.
School districts also would be required to publish classroom curriculum and library materials online, and have in place a method for parents to ask for the removal of those materials under another bill advanced Wednesday by House Republicans.
House File 5 is similar to the House’s proposed school transparency legislation from last year. Majority Republicans wound up not passing any bills on the topic because the Republican-controlled Senate and House could not agree.
At a legislative hearing Wednesday, education groups said they are mostly neutral about the bill, and that districts are already doing much of what’s prescribed in the legislation.
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