DES MOINES, Iowa (WHO) — The fight over what kinds of books students can read has caused tension among school boards and legislation to be drafted by Iowa lawmakers.
It’s an issue our state has primarily seen at the high school level but a non-profit organization whose sole mission is to get more books in the hands of elementary-age students is caught in the middle of a literature tug of war.
The Spark Foundation began its work in 2018, to help improve literacy rates within the Des Moines Public School District. In the time since it has handed out more than 10,000 free books to elementary school students at seven of the district’s most diverse and low-income schools. The books donated highlight diverse authors and characters, and shine a light on historical relevancy.
The non-profit claims this year was the first time the school district pushed back on a piece of reading material donated by the foundation and asked to be distributed.
“This book gave DMPS a pause because there was mention in the book about white people owning slaves,” says Spark Foundation’s communication director, James Michael. “This shouldn’t be controversial and isn’t a controversial statement. It’s a true statement but because of the rhetoric coming from the State Capitol it’s having this chilling effect.”
The Spark Foundation is talking about the book, The 1619 Project: Born on Water. It’s the modified children’s version of The 1619 Project by Iowa author, Hannah Nicole Jones. The book is at the center of many conservative attacks for its depiction of the history of slavery and Black Americans’ origins.
District leaders have since approved the book to be distributed to fourth and fifth graders at Riverview and Moulton Elementary Schools but have not handed them out to teachers and students yet. The district told media the principals of the schools were the ones who raised concern over the books’ content. A spokesperson for the district says both elementary schools plan to hand them out to parents at upcoming family events, adding that it stands behind each individual school’s decision to make the book available. However, the non-profit says principals and teachers are nervous about having the books pass through their hands due to retaliation from either the school district or state government. Michael says the Spark Foundation is gently trying to navigate its future in a highly censored climate.
“We are worried that if we keep running into issues like this in the future, it is going to limit how much we can help the students and the kids we are trying to help, he explains. “We work primarily in low-income schools and districts that’s where a lot of these students that don’t have a lot of books at home.”
In recent years, state lawmakers have introduced bills that make it harder for schools to talk about certain topics, including race and sexual orientation, and have proposed parents be given more control over what their children are reading in class.
Retired Des Moines School teacher and longtime lawmaker Ruth Ann Gaines is certain the censorship of learning materials will have a negative impact on education.
“If you are going to be that limited going into a classroom and you have to think about everything you say and do it puts a clamp on who you are as a teacher,” she says, “Plus it’s not really teaching.”
Gaines says book censorship is nothing new and says its consequences are serious for students regardless of their culture or color.
“If you can’t live diversity, you can certainly experience it variously through books, and if you limit that we are going to start going backwards and in some areas we are.”
The controversy is igniting the Spark Foundation into a flame. “Maybe it’s a 10-year fight or a 50-year fight, but books are not going to get censored in this state. They are not going to get censored in this country. Every child deserves to see themselves reflected in their curriculum.”
The Spark Foundation is currently working to expand its reach into other schools in the metro area with the help of donor support.