Iowa State Capitol

Iowa State Capitol

REGIONAL—How black history is taught in Iowa is in tension after the Republican-controlled Legislature advanced a bill that would strip funding to schools that teach the 1619 Project in their history classes.

House File 222 passed through an education subcommittee Feb. 9 on a 2-1 vote. The bill’s author, Rep. Skyler Wheeler (R-Orange City), said the content of The New York Times project goes against the state’s interest in promoting patriotism.

“This project seeks to tear down America, not build her up. It seeks to divide, not unify. It distorts truth, and does so while pushing a leftist political agenda.” Wheeler said in an e-mail to The REVIEW.

Rep. Ras Smith (D-Waterloo) was the subcommittee’s “No” vote. He said the bill sets a precedent of state overreach into school curriculum as part of a larger “defunding” trend in Iowa’s education policy.

“It sounds good to say ‘leftist propaganda’ or ‘indoctrination’ when it’s an oppositional view that you don’t have,” Smith said. “We have to get past that because we’re talking about policy that impacts on our structures of education for decades to come.”

Smith went on to say that, as a black man, he sees the bill as “an act of racism.”

The Republican bill

A section of Wheeler’s legislation reads:

“The general assembly has a strong interest in promoting an accurate account of this nation’s history through public schools and forming young people into knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.”

Wheeler determined that its content does not meet academic rigor. He also said the bill does not ban the teaching of systemic racism’s history nor does it bar it from literature coursework.

Royd Chambers, a social studies teacher at Sheldon High School, concurred with a negative assessment of the project, saying the work is educationally useless.

“The project is full of ideology, but lacks citations of primary sources to back up the author’s claims,” Chambers said in an e-mail to The REVIEW.

The teacher also a former legislator. Chambers represented the Sheldon area as a Republican in the Iowa House 2003-13 and served on education committees. He asserted that critics such as Smith are wrong about the trajectory of the state’s school regulations.

“It has never been the practice in Iowa to allow the Legislature or the Department of Education to mandate any particular curriculum.” he said. “. . . But the curriculum should be factual, not based on a hate-America agenda.”

Knowing black history

In August 2019, Waterloo native Nikole Hannah-Jones led the publication of the 1619 Project, which was timed with the 400th anniversary of the first African slaves arriving in North America. The project then was adapted into a curriculum by the Pulitzer Center.

A collection of essays and other works, the project posits its titular year as the beginning of American history and centers the country’s bedrock of oppression. As Hannah-Jones writes in the introductory piece:

“‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country . . . Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different — it might not be a democracy at all.”

Christopher Tims, a social studies teacher, utilizes the curriculum as part of his U.S. history and African American history classes at Waterloo East High School, which serves Smith’s district.

“That’s what we do as teachers; we bring in different perspectives. We don’t rely on just one source,” Tims said.

He went on to say the project is only a part of his lessons and that he uses it as a supplement to students’ educations.

Tims noted that children are taught about the background of other non-Native groups such as the Irish and Italians. He said he would have had a better childhood if he had something like the project when he was growing up as a black American.

“If history was a movie, then I’m an extra in that movie. I’m just a person who helps carry the movie along” the educator said. “While if you’re white, and the movie centers around your story, your upbringing, and your progress — the 1619 Project and other works need to be brought in because it gives everyone the whole story.”

Opposed objectives

In his weekly message to his constituents, Wheeler said that the core issue is the “false” and “egregious” claims he says are in the project.

“Its goal is to paint America as a racist nation, saying that we were founded on slavery and not freedom,” the white legislator wrote.

Chambers takes issue with the entire framing of the project.

“When I teach about the history of American political science, I use primary sources, not opinion-based materials,” he said.

Smith said that Republican lawmakers should “have faith in critical thinking” of students who are preparing for the future. He gave the example of George Washington, a “great person,” but also a slave owner.

“If our students can really grapple with that complexity, then imagine their ability to handle the extremely complex issues that they’re going to be faced with,” he said.

What happens now?

If approved in the full Education Committee, House File 222 may well be on its way to becoming law as Republicans hold majorities in the Iowa General Assembly.

The bill as written would strip one-180th of a school district’s state funding — the equivalent of one school day — each day the 1619 Project is used in a course. Tims said this would effectively criminalize teaching what he sees as a valuable resource to his students.

“Racist policymakers in the state want to silence it because it’s one of the works that puts black people in the centerfold of American history,” the teacher said.

Wheeler maintained that the bill would stop “lies and propaganda” from circulating in schools, saying that the 1619 Project does not promote positive outcomes in education.

Smith said the point of the project is to show a fuller vision of America’s past.

To truly promote patriotism, he said, people need to include and listen to voices that have been excluded and silenced in the United States.

“Patriotism is not an either-or,” Smith said. “We’re the only nation that’s made up of every other nation. Acknowledging that and embracing that is, in my opinion, true patriotism.”