House passes controversial bill to ban ‘divisive concepts’ from school training, curriculum

By: - March 16, 2021 7:49 pm

The Iowa State Capitol. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The House passed two pieces of legislation Monday on free speech training in Iowa’s schools, including a controversial bill that would forbid certain “divisive concepts” from diversity training and curriculum.

The first bill, House File 744, requires the Board of Regents to develop free speech training for faculty members and any individuals with student oversight. If a faculty member “knowingly and intentionally” impedes a student’s right to free speech, the institution may discipline or fire that faculty member. The bill would also require universities to train students, faculty and staff on the First Amendment and would create a complaints process for K-12 students in Iowa.

“It’s not our job, it’s not educational institutions’ job to tell those kids what to think,” said Rep. Dustin Hite, R-Oskaloosa. “It’s to give them the tools to decide what to think.”

Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, a journalism professor at Drake University, said she believes in the importance of supporting conservative students in her classes, despite their political differences.

“I will stand up for the rights of conservative students in my classes every single day,” the Windsor Heights Democrat said.

The bill passed with a vote of 97-1. The bill will move back to the Senate, which passed a different version of the proposal on March 8. 

The second bill, House File 802, faced more opposition. Four-and-a-half hours of opposition.

The bill defines “divisive concepts” that could not be taught in training or curriculum at Iowa’s schools or governmental agencies. The concepts include the ideas that an individual is unconsciously racist or sexist due to their race or sex or that the U.S. or Iowa are systemically racist or sexist. The language aligns closely with an executive order President Donald Trump signed in September 2020. President Joe Biden overturned the order in January.

Democrats argued the legislation would hinder meaningful history education at Iowa schools by preventing lessons on widespread, systemic racism in America.

“This bill is a denial of history,” Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, said. “The bill doesn’t want our next generations to receive complete American history education that includes the facts of our darkest hours.” 

Rep. Ross Wilburn, D-Ames, said the restrictions may also prevent difficult but necessary conversations about racism and bias during training programs.

“If you’re not able to plan these conversations and bring them up with intentionality, that’s when disrespectful comments can happen,” Wilburn said.

Rep. Steven Holt, the bill’s floor manager, said it would not censor the divisive concepts as part of a larger discussion, but would rather prevent inclusivity trainings and curriculum from presenting ideas like systemic racism as fact.

“I think we have to have these robust discussions,” Holt, R-Denison, said. “I think we can do that without scapegoating … that the entire nation is racist or that one group has to be this or that. I think that takes us in the wrong direction.”

The conversation on the bill, which Holt called “the best discussion” of his career at the Capitol, included a wide range of topics: a collection of anecdotes about childhood friends and injustices, the Black Lives Matter movement, Kanye West and Michael Jackson.

After a lengthy debate, the House voted 59-36 to pass the legislation, sending it to the Senate for consideration.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.