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Stray Thoughts

It’s wrong to tell parents what their kids can read

6/20/2022

Here we are, well into year three of the effects and after-effects of Covid. 

An oft-heard comment during this time has come from people who believe government should simply butt out. These people believe government should leave it to individuals, and parents, to decide what is best for themselves and their children.

“I trust Iowans to do the right thing,” Gov. Kim Reynolds has said multiple times.
 
But when other issues come up, there is evidence some of these same people want to impose their interpretation of what is right on other individuals and parents who may have different views from theirs of what is proper.
 
While we may not live in the communities where these new controversies are bubbling, we all should be troubled by these efforts just as much as if these efforts were occurring in our backyards.
 
One of these controversies is taking root in Baxter, a Jasper County town of 1,100 people. It is home to the Baxter Community School District, which had an enrollment of 475 students during the past academic year.

Another controversy is playing out in Vinton, a city of 5,000 residents that is the county seat of Benton County.

The America First Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization, has written to the Baxter superintendent vowing legal action if a planned class at Baxter High School is not cancelled.

The policy group claims that an elective class coming in the fall, called “Social Justice in Literature,” would violate an Iowa law enacted in 2021. That law prohibits public schools from teaching “Critical Race Theory” or what lawmakers called other “divisive concepts” based on race, gender, or sexual stereotyping or scapegoating.

CNA- IDPH

It’s important to take note of two things about the planned Baxter High School class:

(1) It is an elective class, not one that is required. No student will be forced to take the class. Presumably, parents who are engaged with their children’s high school studies will know what classes they sign up for.

(2) The class would involve students choosing several works of young-adult fiction that focus on contemporary issues. Neither the teacher nor the school district would tell students which books they would have to read — or which social justice issues they would address in the class.

The America First Policy Institute claims the class would violate the “divisive concepts” law Governor Reynolds signed a year ago. In a letter last week to Superintendent Mickolyn Clapper, the institute warned, “Against this comprehensive statutory framework, the Baxter Community School District is running headlong into legally prohibited territory with its ‘Social Justice in Literature’ course. You are now on notice.”

What the class actually does is give students freedom to explore contemporary issues in our state by reading several novels they choose that deal with these issues. Students then would create a final project that focuses on “social justice in their own lives and community.”

The D.C. institute claims the class is an attempt to “turn impressionable children into social justice warriors who view all that is good and just through the distorted lens of race, sex, gender, power, and politics.”

Call me naïve, but I thought a fundamental goal of a well-rounded high school education was getting students to read, to think for themselves, to analyze and then to express themselves in writing or in a presentation. Nowhere in the course description do I see any attempt by Baxter High School faculty to dictate what the students’ opinions or conclusions are supposed to be, or even what social issues they should study.

And remember, this is an elective class, not one all students must take. But I worry some people think their opinion of what appropriate topics are for a high school class takes precedence over the opinions of Baxter parents who sign their teenagers up for this class.

Controversy is a-boil in Vinton because some in that community think the staff of the local public library has a liberal agenda it is pushing on readers there. The controversy led two library directors to resign in the past two years, one after just six months.

One point of concern of some residents is the number of library employees who identify as LGBTQ. Coupled with that concern has been criticism of a recent display of LGBTQ books and the addition of books about President Joe Biden, including “Joey,” a children’s book by First Lady Jill Biden.

One Vinton woman, the mother of four children, has urged the library to purchase more books with a Christian theme. Library officials have pointed out that of about 6,000 children’s titles in the library, only seven include homosexual or transgender content and 173 are based on Christian themes.

Janette McMahon, who resigned as librarian last year, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette, “I am a firm believer that everyone can have a right to their own opinion, but they don’t have a right to tell others what they can or cannot read.”

No argument from me. ♦

Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com

One Comment

  1. Gerald Ott says:

    On Monday (June 20) The Cedar Rapids Gazette posted a short article (reprinted from The Des Moines Register) under the headline, “A rural Iowa school (Baxter) could become a test case for a state law that bars teaching divisive concepts.” One Register reader said the word “divisive” should have been in italics or accented with quotation marks because it’s not a fact that Social Justice is divisive. I agree.

    The district offers a literature class where students “use a social justice lens to analyze contemporary young adult fiction” and create a final project focused on “social justice in their own lives and community.” In the eyes of a Baxter parent, Dr. Wiebbecke (a soybean specialist who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in 2021), and her DC allies, the teaching of-or-about Social Justice is sufficiently divisive to merit a threatening letter be sent from a lawyer at the America First Policy Institute to the Baxter school superintendent, Dr. Clapper.

    It’s a fight Superintendent Clapper and her Baxter school board may not relish, but it’s a challenge the district must accept. Wiebbecke is challenging the essential rights of a local school district to offer coursework it deems important as authorized by Iowa Administrative Code 281.12.5 (5) — and simultaneously, to limit a teacher’s right to teach as she’s been trained, licensed, and employed.

    The whole of H.F. 802 (2021) and its constitutional underpinnings should be questioned. When based on political or religious convictions only, many doubt the constitutional propriety of carving out otherwise legitimate subject matter for elimination from school curriculum, and many doubt the law would pass muster.

    The Baxter case is reminiscent of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial where science teacher John Thomas Scopes defended his teaching of evolution. The controversy is long dead except in the minds of radical rightwingers, like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) who said she does not “believe in evolution,” adding, “I don’t believe in that type of so-called science.” Or, I suppose, in “so-called” Social Justice.

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