Home Part of States Newsroom
Iowa Senate approves bill adding social studies, civics requirements for Iowa schools


Iowa Senate approves bill adding social studies, civics requirements for Iowa schools

Apr 16, 2024 | 10:25 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
Iowa Senate approves bill adding social studies, civics requirements for Iowa schools
The legislation would require that students in grades 1 through 12 are taught about certain subjects in social studies and civics classes. (Photo illustration via Getty Images)

The Iowa Senate passed a bill Tuesday requiring Iowa schools to adopt new social studies and civics education standards to include a more focused coverage of events and subjects in U.S. history.

House File 2545 passed on a 33-14 vote and was sent to the Senate. It calls for the Iowa Department of Education director to conduct a review of Iowa school curriculum, education standards and high school graduation rates and give recommendations to the governor and General Assembly by July 1, 2025. The bill still includes this goal, but was amended on the floor to include another subject: history and social studies education.

Some of language in the amendment came from House File 2330, a bill passed by the Iowa House in February but not taken up by the Senate. The original House bill would have mandated that history curriculum included subjects like the “history and meaning of the United States flag and national anthem,” “exemplary figures in western civilization, the United States, and the state of Iowa” including Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as documents like the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation.

The Senate amendment includes similar provisions, requiring that “exemplary figures and important events” from western civilization, U.S. and Iowa history are covered, as well as the model of the U.S. state and federal government “in comparison to alternative forms of government, and the crimes against humanity that have occurred under communist regimes since 1917.”

The bill directs the Iowa Board of Education to conduct a review and revision of the state’s social studies standards to include these subjects for students in grades 1 through 12 in a relevant and age-appropriate manner. These standards would be adopted by Dec. 31, 2025.

Democrats in the Senate argued that the bill was overly prescriptive of schools. Sen. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, said the Legislature has never put curriculum requirements in code, and that “it is not the job of the Legislature to prescribe the curriculum.”

Donahue said the provisions in the legislation came from the Civics Alliance, a conservative education advocacy organization, and does not include needed input from Iowa educators, parents and school boards. She said the bill “dumbs down history” for a political purpose, and would hurt Iowa students’ education in history, pointing to the mandate to cover documents like the Emancipation Proclamation but not requiring discussion of issues like slavery and Jim Crow laws.

“What we do here at the Capitol matters to our constituency,” Donahue said. “And the bills that we put forth in education need to build on education, build it up and provide the best opportunities for our students, not tear down the process, and not (tie) the hands of experts to teach students will help them to be able to compete globally in their futures, as well as to understand the world better.”

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, offered an amendment that would have changed references to “western civilization” to “world civilization,” both to reflect the importance of non-American and European history and to reflect the history of people from diverse backgrounds in Iowa. The amendment failed.

Sen. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said Democrats were presenting an overly negative characterization of Western civilization. The language does not prohibit schools from teaching about non-western civilizations, she said, but is intended to “focus our youth on who we are.”

“We’re Americans,” Salmon said. “We were born in western civilization, that’s our heritage. We have to understand that. And it’s really important we do, because that heritage has produced the freest, strongest, most prosperous nation — civilization — in the world. … Not that they don’t, shouldn’t be understanding other civilizations in the world, but they better understand what our heritage is, where we come from, so that they will be able to understand where we need to go.”

Quirmbach responded to Salmon saying that while western civilization has its own strengths and accomplishments, there has also been a history of mistakes and tragedies in U.S. and European history, including slavery and the Holocaust. He said the language in the bill focuses on white Americans and Europeans instead of reflecting the diversity of backgrounds in both the U.S. and Iowa.

Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, called Democrats’ criticisms “grossly unfair.” He said the focus on western civilization is important because it is the foundational context of both American history and current culture, from its form of governance to the use of the English language. He said he agrees that America is a “nation of immigrants” and made up of people from across the world.

“Part of what we have, because we are a melting pot that … involves assimilation, is that as those immigrants come to the United States, they bring new things to our land. Their cultures, their languages, the words that they use — it all gets added to this this great experience of being an American, and that’s wonderful,” Taylor said. “But also, they blend in, and they start to appreciate not only what they as newcomers bring to our land, but what the founding fathers brought to our land.”

The bill goes back to the House for consideration.