Lawmakers look at restrictions on training dealing with ‘divisive concepts’ in schools

Scavo High School art students paint a mural at the Des Moines Public Schools Transportation building. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)

Public schools and universities in Iowa would face new restrictions related to staff or student training dealing with racism, sexism and discrimination under a bill that is advancing in both the Iowa House and Senate.

House Study Bill 258 is one of several Republican-sponsored bills addressing issues related to racism or freedom of speech being debated this session. It advanced Monday from a House Judiciary subcommittee on a 2-1 vote.

The bill lists 10 “divisive concepts” that public schools and universities in Iowa may not “teach, advocate, act upon or promote” as part of mandatory staff or student training.

Among the “divisive concepts” are some that touch on the idea of systemic racism in the United States and the idea of reparations for slavery:

  • “That the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally racist or sexist”
  • “That an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

The bill also bars “race or sex scapegoating,” which is defined as “assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of the race or sex, or claiming that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of persons’ race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.”

However, the bill also states the law would not be construed as infringing on the First Amendment rights of students or faculty, preventing efforts toward diversity and inclusion, or prohibiting discussion of divisive concepts as part of a “larger course of academic instruction.”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, chairman of the subcommittee, said he “absolutely” believes in free speech. “But I think that these concepts identified here are so exactly opposite of what our nation stands for, and what we have worked for, for many, many, many decades, and I will definitely advance to the full committee,” he said.

Opponents of the bill raised concerns about vague language in the bill and emphasized the need to discuss issues in educational settings that some people might consider divisive.

Keenan Crow of One Iowa, an LGBTQ advocacy group that offers diversity training for institutions, said a presidential executive order with almost identical language, signed by President Trump, had the effect of Iowa universities and businesses shutting down diversity training programs. “So if this is passed in current form, schools are likely to respond by significantly curtailing their diversity offerings, whether they violate the letter of this law or not, out of an abundance of caution,” Crow said.

Freedom of speech at state universities has been under scrutiny this year by Republican lawmakers, who have advanced several bills aimed at protecting conservative viewpoints.

“In a session when we’re so focused on free speech, it feels a little antithetical to put into the Iowa Code a list of divisive concepts that we can’t talk about,” Keith Saunders of the Iowa Board of Regents said.

The bill moves the House Judiciary Committee, which would need to approve it by the end of this week to keep it eligible for further debate this session.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the legislation relates to mandatory staff and student training.