Critical race theory stirs controversy in Iowa

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Jul. 12—The Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, based in Bettendorf, landed in hot water recently over a presentation document used in staff meetings condemning Trump supporters as racist.

The Mississippi Bend AEA issued an apology calling the presentation unnecessarily political.

"We sincerely apologize for this misstep. Rest assured, this presentation will no longer be used, nor would it have been approved if it had gone through appropriate channels," the organization stated.

In Iowa

Last month Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill banning the use of 10 critical race theory concepts in K-12 public schools. Banned topics include "racial or gender scapegoating or stereotyping." Critical race theory is an academic discipline that gained steam in the 1990s. According to Stephen Sawchuk, associate editor of Education Week, the crux of the argument is racism is not simply the result of individual prejudice but also deeply embedded in American institutions.

A guidance from the Iowa Department of Education states it will hold school district superintendents accountable for the new law. Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, whose district is served by the Mississippi Bend AEA, said she voted against the bill.

"I didn't support the bill. I think what was so interesting to me is the very same day we passed the Freedom of Speech bill on campus, we passed this one with the diversity and in the end the inability to discuss issues that they felt were inappropriate or stereotyping," she said. "It's hard to talk about issues that affect our community, when there are certain terms that can't be used. And so I think that it certainly is a freedom of speech issue that we've waded into. And I know that we're not alone as one of the states, other states are passing similar legislation like this."

Winckler said state education officials need to focus more on improving social studies curriculum. A report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave Iowa a 'D' for civics standards and an 'F' for American history standards.

"Iowa's civics standards are written so broadly that it's often impossible to say what students are meant to learn, and what elementary civics content does exist is unambitious," the report stated.

Winckler said critical race theory is complex and hard to define for the purposes of statutory law, and that restricting communication is the wrong approach. The bill was motivated in part by a controversial curriculum in the Ames Community School District called "Black Lives Matter at School National Week of Action."

"In regard to week long Black Lives Matter presentation from the Ames School District, individuals are trying to develop some kind of context to what is going on and the disagreements that are going on in communities or in groups. And again, you have to be able to talk about it. It's not in any way pointing fingers," she said. "It is a conversation that is designed for understanding and censoring, that conversation does not make it go away. In fact, in some cases, that makes it harder to ever reach any kind of understanding. And putting labels on conversations is not healthy either. And that's exactly what that bill did."

Some of the 13 principles stated in the Ames curriculum included "restorative justice, trans and queer affirming, unapologetically black, and globalism." The New York Times backed 1619 Project was also being promulgated in their curriculum.

Rep. Tom Moore, R-Griswold, found this problematic.

"That was a major problem in Ames, because not only did they teach that during their Black Lives Matter week, but they also completely shut down voices of parents who wanted to object," Moore said, adding the bill does not stop schools from teaching students that racism exists. "But we want to make sure that the facts that are being taught are not exploiting the topic completely to the other side of the spectrum."

As a retired history teacher himself, Moore said he wants students to learn about racism, just not in a manner that's cynical or politically motivated.

"It's critical that kids be able to learn the difference, you know, what racism is, how it manifests and how it affects people. But to say that every white American is inherently racist, that's not a true statement. But that's a part of the teaching," he said.

He said the 1619 Project is historically inaccurate and inappropriate for a classroom setting.

"Critical race theory, especially when we talk about the 1619 Project, is an attack on America today because of what our past was," he said.

Moore described an iconoclastic attempt by many critical race theorists to vilify and erase historical figures with ties to slavery such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

"If you don't learn from history you tend to repeat it," he said. "And boy, we don't want that to happen."

Moore said the digital learning mandated during the pandemic heightened parental awareness of classroom content.

"Parents having students at home online were seeing more of what was actually being taught in the classroom and they were saying, 'Wait a minute, this isn't right.' I don't want to sound preachy here but parents have got to be involved," Moore said.

Moore said the GOP bill empowers parents by forcing school boards to be more accessible to parents who have complaints.

"It gave our parents a voice when they felt the school system was leaning towards indoctrination versus actual teaching of all sides of an issue," he said.

In Creston

Creston School District superintendent Deron Stender said regardless of personal opinions, he and his staff will fully comply with the will of the legislature. Stender is a member of the American Association of School Administrators and said he will be in Washington D.C. soon to meet with policy makers.

"Political divisiveness on the part of teachers is difficult to monitor. We don't have cameras in the classrooms," he said. "If these these things are happening we need to hear about them. When such incidents occur, we need people to report them so they can be investigated."

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