Written by, Jessica Engelking, Representation Director
Schools across Iowa have pulled at least 450 books so far due to Law S493 forcing Iowa school districts to adopt an “age appropriate, multicultural and gender-fair approach”
Note: Read Superintendent Matt Degner's letter to the Iowa City Community School District below
To the Superintendents of Iowa Schools,
We are writing in response to an email sent by Iowa City Community School District Superintendent Matt Degner regarding the efforts to ensure compliance with Iowa Law Senate File 496. Compliance with this law is a statewide issue and so we are addressing this to all Superintendents across Iowa. While we’re addressing Superintendent Degner’s words specifically, it is likely that many others in his position are expressing or going to express similar sentiments.
In his email, Degner wrote “Our commitment remains steadfast in complying with these new requirements while also maintaining our dedication to supporting our students and fostering safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments within our schools for all students.” Firstly, we want to make it very clear that these things are incompatible. Removing books that speak to lived racial experiences does not foster a welcoming environment for non-white students. Removing materials that aid in the identification of sexual abuse does not make students any safer. Removing books that tell stories of LGBTQ+ people and families is not fostering an inclusive environment.
Taking away these books is actively silencing the voices of those whose stories deserve to be told. All this because the truth they tell makes a portion of the white majority population uncomfortable. It is not enough that they prevent their own children from reading these books but they are so threatened by challenges to the white-cisheteropatriarchy that they pass laws preventing all children from having access to the books they deem unfit. Compliance with this law is incompatible with making our schools a safe, welcoming place for all of our students. Degner ends his email by asking that we, “Please know that this commitment to compliance will not deter us from our dedication to our students' well-being and to creating inclusive learning environments.”
The truth is, you cannot do both. You cannot be simultaneously committed to compliance with a law banning books and also be truly dedicated to students’ best interests and well-being. Compliance with this law harms students. By limiting access to diverse stories, this administration is depriving students from important information, representation, and opportunities to develop empathy.
Secondly, we want to make clear that legal obligations and moral obligations do not always overlap and are at times at odds with one another. However, being at odds does not mean one obligation negates the other. A piece of legislation does not absolve you of moral responsibility to create a just world for all and so a choice must be made. To throw up one’s hands and say, “Oh well, it’s the law”, is to act in bad faith towards the wellbeing of Iowa’s youth. As educators, I challenge you to look to history and point to a time when justice was achieved by adhering to unjust laws. You’re not going to find one. Civil disobedience has always played a role in our ongoing fight for justice and this seems to be a necessary moment.
In conclusion, as you consider how you will go about compliance with SF496, please do not delude yourself into thinking that doing so is in accordance with a commitment to the wellbeing of your students. Do not hide behind legal obligation in the face of the immoralities inflicted on your students by complying to an unjust law. If you are actively purging your libraries because you are following orders, know that there will never be a moral justification for this wrongdoing. Please think of your students first, and live the values you claim to uphold.
Letter from Superintendent Degner, Iowa City Community School District
Dear Families and Staff,
We are reaching out today to provide an update on our ongoing efforts to ensure compliance with Iowa law Senate File 496. Our commitment remains steadfast in complying with these new requirements while also maintaining our dedication to supporting our students and fostering safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments within our schools for all students.
One component of the law is to ensure that our District's K-12 library and curriculum program align with educational standards, provide age-appropriate materials, and support student achievement goals. To shed light on the process, our District has been working with legal counsel and counterparts across the state to gain a thorough understanding of these new obligations.
We have developed a team of administrators, curriculum coordinators, teachers, and teacher librarians who are all actively involved in reviewing library and instructional materials in regard to the new requirements. We have full confidence in their ability to conduct this review process diligently and responsibly. Our commitment to this process remains unwavering, and the work is ongoing.
Along with districts across the State, we recently received a request from the Des Moines Register for the list of books that have been removed to date based on the review process. We provided the current list of removed books per the request. Although these titles were previously on our shelves, they now require removal to meet the State’s new legal standards. Please note that this list is not in final form as the review process of all books is still in progress, and the list is subject to change. The State’s deadline for the District to publish a final list is January 1, 2024.
Please know that this commitment to compliance will not deter us from our dedication to our students' well-being and to creating inclusive learning environments. Thank you for your patience and understanding as we navigate this new legislation.
Matt Degner Superintendent Iowa City Community School District