Des Moines students protest divisive concepts ban and charter schools at Capitol

Iowa high school students Endi Montalvo-Martinez and Josie Mulvihill addressed a group of protesters on Monday, April 26 at the Capitol. (Photo by Katie Akin/ Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Des Moines Public School students gathered on the steps of the Iowa Capitol on Monday afternoon to protest two education bills: one that would create new pathways for charter schools to form and another to ban certain “divisive concepts” from school training and curricula.

“Diversity means nothing if we aren’t willing or even allowed to acknowledge it,” said protest organizer Lyric Sellers, a junior at East High School in Des Moines. “Diversity means nothing if it doesn’t make us do things differently and commit to liberating our marginalized communities.”

House File 802 would prohibit the inclusion of “divisive concepts” in mandatory school training and curriculum. The list of forbidden concepts includes the idea that an individual is unconsciously racist or sexist due to their race or sex and the idea that the United States or Iowa are “fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”

“The education system cannot fully commit to anti-racism and equity if they can’t acknowledge and talk about the harm that marginalized communities have undergone and continue to experience,” said Endi Montalvo-Martinez, a senior at East High School. Montalvo-Martinez, 17, and Sellers, 16, are cofounders of the DMPS Racial Justice and Equity student group.

Josie Mulvihill, a senior at Norwalk High School, hopes to be a history or literature teacher after she graduates. She told the crowd of about 200 that the bill would hinder her ability to teach diverse, honest classes.

“I cannot imagine teaching in a school and knowing that these bills are making the decision in how I educate the future generations … I cannot imagine not being able to teach the future generations what systemic racism is, what it means and how it affects our generation and future generations,” Mulvihill, 18, said.

Protesters also spoke against House File 813, a bill that introduces new ways for charter schools to form outside of governance from a local school board. The state would not fund the construction of the charter schools, but would allocate a certain amount of money for each student that attended. That means that, if students left the Des Moines school system to attend a charter, Des Moines Public Schools would lose the funding for those pupils.

“House File 813, a bill to defund public schools and use it to fund private, charter schools will deprive our students of the educational experience they deserve,” Sellers said, calling the bill “a way to segregate schools again.”

A nonpartisan Legislative Services Administration assessment of the bill could not estimate how many charter schools would open or how many students would be likely to transfer from public schools.

Roaa Kordeir, a junior at Roosevelt, said the bills were made to target Des Moines Public Schools, one the largest and most diverse districts in the state. 

“When you look at our representative body, they don’t look like me … I’m Black, most of them, 90% of them are white,” Kordeir, 17, said. “They don’t actively seek the voices of Black and Brown people, they don’t actively seek the voices of students to see how these bills are harming us.”

Speakers address systemic problems within the Des Moines Public School system

Iris Amaya-Leiva, 17, said she blamed herself when Des Moines Public Schools put her in below-grade level classes. Amaya-Leiva was placed with English language learners, she said, despite the fact she had lived her entire life in the United States.

“As the years went by, I started to get more angry … More angry with the system, more angry with DMPS,” Amaya-Leiva said. She realized in high school that the school system hadn’t included classes on her own history, instead focusing on a curriculum of “irrelevant” white historical figures.

Several of the students at Monday’s protest went beyond the scope of the two bills, using the megaphone to discuss issues with the school system. Some said they were systematically denied opportunities due to their race or heritage, while others noted that the highlights of the school system, like arts and cultural classes, were threatened by lack of funding and legislation.

“We need to make sure that our public education is not left behind, because the children of this country are our future,” said Hannah Garside, a Roosevelt High School graduate, former educator and public school parent.

Amaya-Leiva also thanked Des Moines Public Schools in her speech.

“Not only are they making me angry, but I want to turn my anger into something,” Amaya-Leiva said. “I want to become a member of Congress, I want to become president. I want to change the world.” 

What’s next for the legislation?

The House passed both bills in March, sending them to the Senate. The Senate considered the bills in committee, but neither has made it to the Senate floor. 

Sen. Claire Celsi, D-Des Moines, attended Monday’s protest along with a few other Democratic senators. She praised the students for taking action and making their voices heard.

“This year has been very tough on Des Moines Public Schools in particular. The bills have been punitive and targeted,” Celsi said.

Celsi estimated the legislative session would last “a couple weeks” more, leaving lawmakers limited time to pass a budget and debate the education bills that brought Des Moines students to the protest.