Iowa Department of Education does not commit to clarifying K-12 book restriction rules

By: - August 3, 2023 5:54 pm

Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was among more than two dozen books removed last month from a school library at Goddard, Kansas, following a challenge by a parent. The books have since been returned to the shelves. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Despite requests from Iowa educators, the Iowa Department of Education does not plan to release detailed guidance on implementation of new laws restricting book and school materials, officials said Thursday during a state board meeting.

During the State Board of Education meeting, Eric St. Clair, the legislative liaison of the department, discussed new laws passed during the 2023 legislative session and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. The board releases an annual “Letter to the Field” for educators and school administrators to consult ahead of the upcoming school year.

The document included a summary of Senate File 496, a “parental rights” law that includes requirements for schools to remove books depicting sexual acts, as well as restrictions on material and instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation for K-6 students. The letter states K-12 school district library programs will be required to ensure “programs contain only age-appropriate materials” as defined by the Act, and that the Department of Education has the authority to investigate allegations of noncompliance.

Members of the board said school staff and educators were calling for the department to publish further guidelines on implementing the new restrictions.

“Talking with educators, there’s a lot of confusion,” Board President John Robbins said. “People in the field that I’ve talked with (are hoping) the DOE or somebody provides direction because right now, we’re kind of either guessing what is right or wrong, and not being in violation of the law.”

While St Clair said the request was “appreciated,” he and board members did not commit to releasing further information on implementing the law.

St Clair said every year, the department receives feedback on their legislative update letter, “which is helpful in terms of what perhaps we thought was clear and isn’t clear.”

“And as we get that feedback, we do that on case-by-case basis, and determine how to appropriately respond,” he said.

But advocates like Melissa Peterson with the Iowa State Education Association said responding to questions on a “case-by-case” basis is inadequate. Without guidance from the state, Iowa students may lose access to books still legal under state law, Peterson said, because educators and school district are moving forward with an “abundance of caution.”

“We fear that will limit (students’) access to completely legal and legitimate materials that aren’t actually prohibited per the law,” Peterson said. “Many districts will — again, because there is no specific guidance — attempt to avoid any controversy and pull potentially controversial materials because they were afraid of upsetting someone. And I’m afraid that that will happen at the expense of a robust and an inclusive education experience for all our students.”

In late July, the Urbandale Community School District sent an email to employees with a list of 374 books to be removed from school libraries and classrooms for potentially violating the new state standards. The list included books like “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas as well as classics like “Ulysses” by James Joyce and “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner.

PEN America, a nonprofit organization focused on freedom of expression, released an open letter calling for Urbandale school district leaders to keep the books on school shelves.

“Our letter to Urbandale Community School District signals to district leaders and others across the state that ‘broad interpretations’ of vague laws threaten the freedom to read for students and infringe upon their constitutionally protected rights,” Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read program director at PEN America, said in a statement. “… Rather than supporting educators, librarians, and school districts as they start another school year, the governor’s mandate has added an excessive burden on educators to review their classroom libraries and start the school year in a climate of censorship.”

State Rep. Skyler Wheeler, chair of the House Education Committee, said lawmakers have been clear that the law is intended to require schools remove books with graphic depictions and images of sex acts. The law defines sex acts as sexual contact between two or more people, such as penetration and contact between a person’s genitalia and another person’s hand or mouth.

“Anyone who has actually read the bill and read the definition in the bill for a sex act knows that the Urbandale school district is just playing a political game with their recently released list of books,” Wheeler said in a statement. “It’s unbelievable to me that some of these school districts are having such a hard time removing sexually explicit material from their library.  This is quite simple to me. Porn doesn’t belong in school libraries. Books that don’t contain porn can remain on the shelves.”

The Urbandale’s list of quarantined books was reduced to 64 books Thursday after the district decided to pause removal of books related to gender identity and sexual orientation, the Des Moines Register reported. Many of the books on the school district’s original list were flagged for potentially violating the law in regard to a provision banning schools from providing students in kindergarten through sixth grade with any “program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion, or instruction” related to gender identity and sexual orientation.

This prompted Urbandale to flag books including “Mayor Pete” by Rob Sanders, an illustrated biography of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, and picture books like “Heather Has Two Mommies” by Lesléa Newman.

Peterson said some educators want the Board of Education to specify what counts as “promotion” of gender identity and sexual orientation.

“If I have a family photo, and it’s myself as a woman, with a wife who’s a woman, is that considered promotion?” Peterson said. “Conversely, if I am a woman and I had a picture of my husband on my desk, is that promotion of a gender identity or a sexual orientation? How are we going to define promotion? Because it’s not defined in the law.”

The Department of Education will be responsible for conducting investigations into complaints about school districts and staff violating the law, which will be enforced beginning Jan. 1, 2024. If the Department of Education investigation finds the district or employee violated the law, they would be issued a written warning for their first offense. The district or employee would be subject to a Board of Educational Examiners ethics investigation and potential disciplinary action for their second and any subsequent violations.

Peterson said educators are looking to learn what “mechanism or rubric” the department will use to conduct investigations into violations of the law, or for the Department of Education to provide a “FAQ” in navigating the new restrictions.

Margaret Buckton, a lobbyist with the Urban Education Network and the Rural School Advocates of Iowa, told the board Thursday that many school districts are working hard to comply with the new state laws but are feeling “in limbo” without further guidance from the department.

Iowa students will be the ones most hurt by these changes, Buckton said, as schools may remove books that have an important impact on students’ development.

“This is kind of a sea change for local school leaders, especially coming out of the pandemic that had heavy state control, and they’re concerned about making mistakes,” Buckton said. “So they’re turning to school attorneys whose focus is risk management, not necessarily what students need. So we’re hearing some concerning things about schools potentially being too conservative in their interpretation or overly interpreting the law.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.