A new bill from the Senate would forbid the Iowa Department of Education from promoting Social-Emotional Learning in schools and put restrictions on the ability of schools to survey students about a variety of issues including their home life, their social lives and their recreation.
It passed out of a subcommittee by Sens. Sandy Salmon (R-Janesville) and Lynn Evans (R-Aurelia). It will next be heard in the full Senate Education Committee.
Salmon said the bill is necessary because she believes social-emotional learning contains Critical Race Theory (a framework used only in some law schools) and does too much to affirm LGBTQ identities—which she described as violating some religious beliefs.
According to the Iowa Department of Education’s website, the five key parts of Social-Emotional Learning that are taught are: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.
All are described as being learned not just in schools but within families and communities, and as key parts of being able to work with other people by empathizing and finding common ground despite cultural and emotional differences.
A number of people did speak in support of the bill, on the basis of conspiracy theories about Marxism, Critical Race Theory, social justice and indoctrinating children to be, or to accept others who are, LGBTQ.
“SEL displaces parents and families as the primary transmitters of the child’s values,” one parent said. “And there’s a shift philosophically in school culture to transform a whole child. So programs like these are influencing the child, so influencing the child to do more social justice and desensitizing them to things that are happening in the world so they’re going against their family morals.”
Online comments held many of the same sentiments.
“SEL is unacceptable! Our schools need to concentrate on teaching reading, writing and math not supporting the gender altering perception of the LGBTQ+ agenda!” Dawn Bertrand wrote.
Kathy Pietraszewski wrote, “I support SF 85. The Marxist ideology permeating our school system is just plain wrong. Every American who knows anything about history knows that a free society is far superior in every way than one based in tyranny with the State controlling what ideas and feelings children are allowed to have. These progressive educators and woke parents are pushing us toward socialism.”
A core argument was that schools shouldn’t be involved in teaching children about recognizing and managing their emotions at all, and that it should be left to parents.
“It may seem innocent on the surface, but further evaluation shows that creates a Trojan horse for teachers and the creators of curriculum to inject their own values that are not necessary for the school setting and conflict the values of parents and the local community,” one speaker said.
Oliver Bardwell, who hosts the right-wing The Freedom Factor podcast, talked about the push in Van Meter to have the specific Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotion Learning (CASEL) removed from the schools because they argued it promoted an agenda and encouraged students to become social justice activists.
Van Meter Schools ultimately rejected the petition after reviewing their curriculum and rejecting the claim it pushes and agenda.
Most of the people who spoke against the bill made an effort to clarify what social-emotional learning actually is and how important it is for students. A few specifically said they wanted to correct misinformation that came from the bill’s supporters.
Melissa Peterson of the Iowa State Education Association described how the social skills taught in SEL are valued in workplaces and that teachers trained in SEL are in high demand for jobs.
“It is the responsibility of our public school systems and the education professionals in them to meet the students where they are,” she said.
Peterson described how many students don’t inherently have the skills to manage their emotions and work with others, and it often falls to the schools to teach those things.
“If there’s something I can agree with most of the folks who have spoken on this bill who are in support of it, it would be that my members would love to get back to the basics,” she said. “They would love to have an opportunity to get back to just teaching academics. That’s not the world in which we live.”
Kelli Soyer, senior policy advocate for Common Good Iowa, talked about the material, studied benefits of this education.
“Surveys indicate that 84% of teachers said integrating SEL into the core curriculum has become even more important since the pandemic. In a 2021 study, it showed 80% of parents indicated they had some level of concern for their child’s mental and social and emotional well-being since the beginning of the pandemic,” she said. “There was another survey that said 93% of parents say it is important that their children’s schools teach them to develop social and emotional skills.”
Sen. Molly Donahue (D-Cedar Rapids) who works as a public school teacher and voted against advancing the bill, talked about the necessity of children learning how to get along with each other and control themselves.
“We’ve had a lot of parents talk about how COVID caused issues with their kids being at home and they come to school and we’ve seen that they don’t have these skills because they have not been socially educated,” she said. “They’re not with their peers, they’re on their video games. They don’t know how to deal with their emotions. They don’t know how to socialize with people in the classroom. They don’t know how to deal with different people.”
CORRECTION 2/6/23: An earlier verision of this story misspelled Kelli Soyer’s name. That has been corrected. We regret the error.
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