More than three in four Iowans oppose politicians banning books in schools and believe it’s un-American to do so, according to a new Courier Newsroom/Data for Progress survey.
Seventy-six percent of Iowa voters agree that “state lawmakers banning books at schools is a form of censorship and goes against American values of freedom of speech and expression,” according to the survey. Seventy-seven percent said they strongly or somewhat opposed lawmakers banning books in schools, while only 23% support such bans.
Over the past 18 months, conservative activists, media, and politicians have stoked panic among some parents that public school children are being taught “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), an academic legal framework that studies the impact of systemic racism in the United States at the graduate school level.
CRT is not taught in K-12 schools, but that hasn’t stopped Republican leaders in state legislatures and school boards from banning books, censoring how educators can teach about race and American history, and pushing curriculum transparency bills that critics believe are intended to instill fear in teachers.
In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law last summer banning the teaching of "divisive concepts" and ideas that the US or Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist or that a person, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, either consciously or unconsciously.
Republican state lawmakers also introduced legislation last year to limit how educators talk about history and racism. A bill from Rep. Skyler Wheeler would ban the teaching of the New York Times’ 1619 Project on the origins of slavery, an initiative created by Waterloo-born author Nikole Hannah-Jones. Schools or colleges that violate the ban and teach material from the 1619 Project or “any similarly developed curriculum” would lose some of their state funding.
More recently, the Iowa GOP introduced a proposed “parents’ bill of rights,” which basically says that parents and guardians of minor students have the right to know what a school is teaching and access and review information about who’s teaching the student, and access and review information about the people who contract with or receive money from the board of director.
The bill also says students can’t be required to engage in anything, whether that be instruction, a test, or some other kind of assessment, that involves “obscene” material without a parent or guardian’s written consent beforehand. Students are also not allowed to access material or check out books with “obscene material” without the parent or guardian’s prior, written consent.
At least two state lawmakers, state Senate president Jake Chapman and Sen. Brad Zaun, also believe that teachers should be prosecuted if they allow students to read books that they believe are obscene.
“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,” Chapman said at a November school board meeting in Johnston.
Chapman’s comments were made in response to a parent’s effort to have two books banned by the school board due to mentions of sex and discussions of race and racial identity.
He introduced a bill last month that would punish teachers and administrators for assigning reading materials considered obscene—a term which is used interchangeably by Chapman with “hard-core pornography” in the bill. If the bill were to become a law, a teacher or administrator who violates these provisions would be guilty of a serious misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of between $430 and $2,560.
The book-ban effort in Johnston ultimately failed, but similar challenges have occurred in Ankeny, Waukee, and Urbandale. Many students are fighting back against these challenges, which have targeted books exploring LGBTQ and racial identities.
Taylor Hedenberg, who identifies as a lesbian and attends Ankeny High School, said she grew up in an unsupportive environment and flocked to books that represented the queer experience. When she saw characters loving without shame, she said it made a huge impact on her.
“Those books can help kids like me who are confused and not in a place where they could experiment without being put in harm’s way,” she said during an Ankeny school board meeting in December. “Banning these books means potentially leaving young, queer kids to be confused and struggle with their identity, which could lead to mental health problems down the road and, in some cases, suicide.”
In Urbandale, sophomore Hailie Bonz called the idea of banning books “embarrassing.”
“Not only would you be taking away students’ voices and the resources they have access to, but you’d be taking away their identities and their experiences,” Bonz said.
She said many of the subjects in these books are challenges students experience in their own lives. The books are not only reflections of those experiences, but important resources for understanding themselves and their peers.
“Just because you don’t want to talk about some of these important issues or have your child read about some of these issues, doesn’t mean the issues don’t exist,” she said.
While Republicans have embraced the fringe position of banning books, a dozen Iowa House Democrats announced an effort to prohibit book-banning in Iowa’s schools and establish a “right to read” in the Iowa Constitution. HJ 2001 would create an amendment to the Iowa Constitution that prevents the Iowa Legislature from restricting books or other written materials being available to students in the libraries of educational institutions ranging from elementary to higher education.
Amending the Iowa Constitution is a complicated and long process and the Democrats’ effort is a moonshot, given Republican control of the General Assembly. But in fighting for the right to read, Democrats have sent a signal of sorts to the overwhelming majority of Iowans who oppose book bans and find them un-American: At least one party in the state believes in freedom of speech and expression.
Survey Methodology: Data for Progress estimates opinion at the state level using a machine learning model trained on nationally representative survey responses linked to a commercial voter file. The model accounts for over 400 variables, including individual demographic characteristics, vote history, and primary participation as well as the political and demographic characteristics of the respondents’ census tract.
By Keya Vakil