Accusations Counted Against Iowa Schools In ‘Divisive Concepts’ Reporting Bill

Screenshot of Feb. 1 of Iowa House Education Subcommittee hearing.

By Ty Rushing

February 1, 2023

Concerns were raised today about a House Republican bill that would create a system to report educators for teaching banned “divisive concepts” from a new law—which can include forms of racism and sexism—in Iowa public schools and that would also levy fines on school districts where it was proven to have taken place.

During a Wednesday House Education Subcommittee hearing on House Study Bill 112, Michelle Johnson, a lobbyist for the Iowa Association of School Boards, noted a few issues her organization has with the proposal.

“The report that’s required to be filed with the General Assembly includes districts with a potential violation, so it’s kind of just predetermined that the district did something bad,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of biasing people against the district that there is any wrongdoing before it’s proven.”

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All the reports of potential violations are to be submitted to the Iowa Legislature in an annual report due on July 1. The report would indicate the school district where each potential violation occurred, so even if a district’s name is cleared during an investigation it would still be listed.

Rep. Steve Holt (R-Denison) chaired the subcommittee and said while he can understand the concern with that provision, he supports keeping it in place.

“If you were to look at how a school district that had 200 potential violations, that might tell you something,” Holt said. “We all know the difference between potential and confirmed, but I think also if you see a school district that just seems to have a lot of potential violations, that tells you something too.”

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Once a report is filed, the Iowa Department of Education will make a determination as to whether or not it is valid. If it is valid, the department would notify the local school board, which then has 14 days after the notice of noncompliance to correct the violation.

If the school board does not rectify the violation, the school district will be assessed a civil penalty between $500 to $5,000. Revenue from the penalties would go to the state general fund.

Outside of assigning investigations of potential violations to the Iowa Department of Education, the bill does not specify how such investigations are to be conducted nor is there a process to allow school districts to challenge allegations.

“We think that districts should be given a reasonable time to investigate and then contest that allegation if they think that’s reasonable,” Johnson said. “And we just think that districts should be given away to appeal these allegations as well.”

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All suspected violations would be reported directly to the Iowa Department of Education’s website. Eric St. Clair, a lobbyist for the state agency, said this is a potential administrative issue with its current resources.

“Establishing and maintaining a system and the capacity to respond quickly to the alleged complaints that we receive through the system, it would be administratively cumbersome,” he said. 

“Without additional financial support and authority to support the program, we don’t think we could do this on a timeline that’s adequate for response to the public. 

St. Clair also said there are already reporting processes in place through the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners and this would create redundancies.

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Holt and two speakers who supported the bill said this step was necessary because they believe school districts are finding a way to skirt the divisive concepts law by using language that wasn’t prohibited in it. The divisive concepts law was signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in June 2021 to limit how public schools and state entities can offer training on racism, sexism, and diversity and inclusion.

“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 simply trying to play word games and keep doing the same thing,” Holt said.

Holt and Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Hull), who introduced the bill, voted to advance it to the full House Education Committee while Rep. Sue Cahill (D-Marshalltown) voted against it.


by Ty Rushing

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  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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