Republicans grill school officials over book policies

By: - February 20, 2023 8:24 pm

Democrats invited book ban opponents to speak at the Capitol on Monday. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

If an image from a book isn’t appropriate to wear on a T-shirt at school, then why is the book appropriate for a school library?

That was among the questions Republicans of the Iowa House’s Government Oversight committee asked public school district leaders Monday night as lawmakers consider legislation that would require the districts to disclose classroom materials and a list of books to parents and a process to challenge books. Many school districts already meet those potential requirements.

The committee hearing followed one earlier this month in which five mothers argued that some books are too obscene to be available in school libraries.

Among those books is “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel that describes its nonbinary author’s adolescence and includes depictions of masturbation and oral sex.

“There’s obscenity in the book,” said Rep. Phil Thompson, R-Jefferson. “And I think really that’s, honestly, where you can look at that and say this isn’t age appropriate.”

Representatives from two school districts that retained the book despite challenges from parents were asked to defend the retentions during Monday’s hearing.

“I think the beauty of literature is, in art, everybody sees something different and it speaks to them in a certain way,” said Jeff Hicks, president of the West Des Moines school board.

A parent had unsuccessfully argued that the district’s freshman high school was violating state law by making explicit material available to children. The district’s school board overwhelmingly voted to keep the book, and the state Board of Education declined to consider an appeal of that decision last year.

“I think the context matters,” Hicks said. “If you displayed a picture of a woman with her breasts exposed or a young boy with his penis exposed, that in and of itself, you’d say, ‘Well, that surely strikes me as obscene,’ but those depictions are in murals in the (Iowa State Capitol) rotunda.”


Rep. Brooke Boden, an Indianola Republican who is the chairperson of the Government Oversight committee, questioned representatives from the Carlisle Community School District about the difference between having “Gender Queer” in a school library and a student wearing a T-shirt that depicts one of the objectionable scenes from the book. Carlisle Superintendent Erik Anderson said such a T-shirt wouldn’t be allowed.

“One of them is in context, and one of them is not,” he said. “So by itself, the image by itself is separate than the book as a whole.”

It’s unclear how the pending legislation might affect the school districts’ book collections. They already have review processes that allow parents to challenge books.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said the current standards being used by schools to decide whether to retain or remove books are too loose.

“I don’t know how any book in any library, regardless of what’s in it, could be removed from the library,” Holt said. “If in fact, there’s one page or there’s two pages or whatever in there that connects to a student, or that has some kind of literary value, I’m not sure how anything ever gets removed.”

House Democrats have criticized Republican inquiries into the book debate as one-sided because parents who oppose book bans haven’t been asked to participate.

“Since we can’t have any parents speak before this committee who aren’t members of Moms for Liberty,” said Sean Bagniewski, D-Des Moines, “I will say I am a public school parent. I don’t want any political organization, whether they are liberal or conservative or independent or anybody else, making decisions for what my kid gets to read and gets to be taught at our public school.”

Most of the women who spoke at the previous committee hearing were members of Moms for Liberty, a conservative nonprofit that has sought more educational oversight and control for parents.

Democrats held a separate hearing earlier Monday with parents and students who oppose book bans.

“I am questioning why would some parents and legislators want to rob me and other young people of the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, to see life as it is in a different light,” said Rebekah Schurz, a junior at Carlisle High School. “Parents and our Legislature should not be allowed to ban certain books because banning a book is like banning an opportunity.”

Shoshana Salowitz, a queer, nonbinary Des Moines resident and parent of a kindergarten student, said some who seek to remove books from school libraries are engaging in a culture war to further marginalize minority groups.

“These bans have never been about books,” Salowitz said. “They aren’t about erasing thoughts or concepts or ideas. They are about erasing people. They are about denying the humanity of queer folks, Black folks, brown folks. They state in no uncertain terms whose voices deserve to be heard and whose don’t; who deserves safety and who doesn’t.”

Republicans denied that they have any nefarious intentions in questioning the appropriateness of certain books in school libraries.”Those of us that are here today are here for concerned parents,” said Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton.

Correction: Two quotes in this article were incorrectly attributed to Superintendent Matt Adams of West Des Moines Community Schools. They were spoken by the district’s school board president, Jeff Hicks.


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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.