Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman’s extreme anti-teacher rhetoric may be damaging his party’s goals for education policy this legislative session.
When talking about education, it’s been clear other leading Iowa Republicans would prefer to speak in terms of “parental choice” when it comes to their main goal of a private school voucher system. They also try to frame their support of publicizing every aspect of a teacher’s lesson plans and books lists under the guise of “transparency.”
But instead of that, Gov. Kim Reynolds and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver have had to talk about whether they think teachers are nefariously spreading an agenda to hurt students, or if they support teachers being charged with felonies for allowing students to read certain books.
And that’s because of remarks made by Chapman.
Chapman kicked off the legislative session accusing teachers of having a “sinister agenda” when it comes to what they teach.
“The time has come to take a stand,” Chapman said Jan. 10. “It has become increasingly evident that we live in a world in which many, including our media, wish to confuse, misguide and deceive us, calling good evil and evil good. One doesn’t have to look far to see the sinister agenda occurring right before our eyes.”
That’s in response to multiple school library books that have faced challenges from parents across the Des Moines metro.
“Yeah, I think charging anyone with felonies for these types of things I don’t think is a good idea,” Whitver said on last Friday’s Iowa Press. “We haven’t seen the bill come out of the Senate. I’m not sure if the House has a bill yet. There’s a lot of ideas on the table. And so we’re going to look at those ideas like we do everything.”
But beyond that, he didn’t condemn Chapman’s remarks.
Whitver instead pivoted to calling for more transparency from schools and for parents to be able to make more decisions regarding what the schools teach.
“I think adding transparency is a really good way to do that, make sure our parents have a seat at the table in their kids’ education, give them a process to address any concerns they have,” Whitver said.
Chapman went on to introduce his promised bill targeting teachers for prosecution several days after Whitver’s interview, leading another round of news coverage on the matter.
Whitver, meanwhile, sought to keep the focus on parents’ ability to send their children to whichever school they want, with public funding help from the state even if that choice was a private school.
“Ultimately, if none of that works you need to give parents a choice on where their kids are going to school and whether that is going from one public school to another public school like we did last year, or a public school to a charter school or maybe now public to private schools,” Whitver said. “That is, I think, the best path forward for Iowa.”
That’s what some Republicans would rather talk about. Making gestures toward parents and cracking down on the way teachers teach social studies or talk about current events with students. Already, Republicans have introduced bills to restrict what kinds of topics they can teach and forbid them from making students uncomfortable. But few have publicly gone as far as advocating jail time.
Last November, at a Johnston school board meeting, Chapman said teachers who allow students to read certain books should be charged with felonies, and that books with certain kinds of content should be banned from schools.
“I can tell you, if this material was in my school, I’d be going to law enforcement. I would be asking for a criminal investigation. I would be asking for every single teacher who disseminated that information to be held criminally responsible,” he said in the meeting.
Those books are often about LGBTQ and/or people of color and their experiences living with their identities. Some are memoirs and the authors have frequently said they want their books to make people who share their identity feel seen and to educate those who don’t.
Chapman’s comments immediately sparked backlash in both cases from teachers, Democratic legislators, newspaper editorial pages, and Iowans generally. In most news coverage, reporters have also asked Chapman’s colleagues if they agree.
Reynolds also hasn’t denounced Chapman’s comments, but did try to distance herself from them when pressed by Radio Iowa in a mid-January interview.
“I’m not going to take any ownership of that. I hope he just misspoke and he’ll correct that,” Reynolds said, of Chapman’s comments that were clearly not a mistake.
She’s stuck to the claim of wanting transparency in schools and clear policies for how parents can get books removed from school libraries, many policies of which already exist.
When asked by KCCI if she supported Chapman’s position, Reynolds instead said, “Well, I’ll go by what I said. And I am accountable for my actions and my words. And I think actually my words speak louder … If you’re talking about, do I think inappropriate things are being displayed in libraries, and in classrooms, across the state? From what I’ve heard from parents, I absolutely agree with that.”
She then read an excerpt from “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” one of the books in question, removed from its context within the chapter and scene.
In a Radio Iowa interview on Jan. 5, Reynolds called for requiring lists of school books to be posted online and requiring school officials to respond to parents’ complaints about any books within 30 days.
“If a parent has a concern about what’s in there, there should be a process where they get answers and they should have options,” Reynolds said during a statehouse forum sponsored by the Iowa Capitol Press Association.
So while state Republicans like Reynolds and Whitver are pushing for similar policies and outcomes as Chapman on education, Chapman’s rhetoric and obsession with jailing teachers has put their party on the defensive for the first several weeks of session on a topic that most Iowans view as far too extreme.
by Nikoel Hytrek