Evans: Iowa school debate needs a lesson in civics

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Open meeting table (iStock image)

A seat at the table.

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver provided that succinct explanation last week of what his fellow Republicans are looking to provide to Iowa parents as the state’s K-12 school districts wrestle with a host of controversies.

His colleague, Senate President Jake Chapman, set the tone a few weeks ago for addressing these controversies in this year’s session of the Iowa Legislature.

Chapman accused some teachers of having a “sinister agenda” toward their students and vowed to push for a law that would make it a felony for teachers and school librarians to provide students with books that Chapman and some parents believe are obscene.

During an appearance Friday on Iowa PBS’s “Iowa Press” program, Whitver did not talk about the content of those books. Instead, he bluntly said he does not support criminalizing teachers’ actions.

But Whitver did say senators are hearing from many parents who are troubled by the way local schools are being run, and lawmakers are looking at steps the Legislature could take.

Their concerns deal with schools’ responses to the pandemic, school curriculum, and now, about some books used in classes and available in school libraries.

“We are hearing concerns from parents, and our job is to listen to those concerns and try to address them,” he said. “I think adding transparency is a really good way to do that — making sure our parents have a seat at the table in their kids’ education, to give them a process to address any concerns they have.”

He went on: “We really want to have this conversation about putting parents back in control of their kids’ education.”

Setting aside the content of some books and the question of whether they are appropriate for various ages of students, Whitver’s analysis does not square with the reality in Iowa’s K-12 school districts.

He misleads people who may have forgotten what they learned in American government classes when they were in school.

Parents already do “have a seat at the table” to shape the education offered in their communities. Those seats are called the school board. Parents already do run for these seats. Parents already do have a say in who will serve on that board — which is decided in odd-numbered years when voters go to the polls.

That board has the power to hire, and fire, administrators and teachers. That board sets policies on everything from the cost of school records to masks, curriculum and the cost of school lunches.

Parents do have a say in their children’s education — during parent-teacher conferences, during meetings with school principals, during after-school discussions with their children’s teachers, during the public forum at school board meetings, in letters to their local newspapers.

Every school district already has procedures in place for parents, or anyone else, to object to the content in certain books used during classes or available in school libraries. Those complaints trigger discussions and decisions by committees of educators and community members on whether to restrict or remove certain books.

Every school district has procedures in place for parents to object to their child having to take part in certain class assignments. In those instances, teachers will provide alternate lessons for the child.

If parents do not think school officials are responding properly to the concerns they and other parents raise, those parents already have the option of running for a school board seat or supporting another candidate who shares their views.

Parents who are so dissatisfied with the way their local schools are operating have another powerful option: They can transfer their child to another school district or to a private school. They and like-minded parents can form a charter school in their community. Or, the ultimate example of parental authority over the education of their children comes when mom and dad decide to begin teaching their kids at home.

Whitver failed to acknowledge another fact of life that is present every day in the public’s dealings with their elected leaders — whether that involves local school boards or city councils, county boards, state legislatures or Congress. That fact of life is this: Just because one group of people want elected officials to take certain action, it still takes a majority of the members of a government body voting “yes” for that to occur.

Just because one set of parents may be especially vocal does not automatically mean their wishes will, or should, supersede what other parents may want.

And if the vocal group is on the losing end of a vote, that just means the other side was more persuasive or had more supporters aligned with them.

See Joe Biden for a fuller explanation of this fact of life.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.