Teachers in Iowa are scrambling to remove books from their classrooms that might not comply with a new law. However, educators say the law is vague and confusing enough that they aren’t sure how to follow it — and at least one district is turning to artificial intelligence to help teachers avoid professional consequences.
Senate File 496 bans instructional materials with “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.” It also restricts instruction on gender or sexual orientation and prohibits students from going by a name that isn’t on the school’s file without parental permission. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) championed the law, saying it “put parents in the driver’s seat” and “empowers teachers to prepare our kids for their future.”
The law went into effect on July 1. Starting in January, anyone who violates it could be subject to a written warning and a disciplinary hearing.
However, the Iowa Department of Education offers no guidance on how to ensure books comply with the law, leaving each school district to their own interpretation. It’s unclear whether the department will be providing guidance in the future. The Iowa Department of Education did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
“One of the unintended consequences is that there is a wide variance of interpretation of the law,” said Mike Beranek, the president of the Iowa State Education Association, the state’s only teachers union. “The anxiety and the angst and the worry about the consequences if they do something wrong is very burdensome.”
Some schools cast a wide net. In the Urbandale Community School District outside of Des Moines, a school official initially flagged nearly 400 books that potentially had to be removed. After a public outcry, the school board whittled the list down, eventually removing 65 books.
Bridgette Exman, assistant superintendent for instruction in Mason City, took a different approach: She used ChatGPT to narrow down which books could be violating the state law, Popular Science first reported.
“People have poked a lot of holes in my process, but no one has given me a formal process,” Exman told HuffPost.
Exman let ChatGPT choose from a list of books that are widely banned in U.S. schools, then read any she wasn’t familiar with or reread ones that she didn’t remember well. She eventually ended up with a list of 19 books that were removed.
“When I think of all the things I could be spending my time on, spending hours and weeks on trying to protect kids from books just didn’t sit right with me,” said Exman, who is a former English teacher.
“I should have been preparing professional development meetings, or learning how to welcome our new immigrant families,” she added. “Instead, I’m googling book summaries.”
Exman said the law fixes a problem that hadn’t even existed, noting that Mason City schools haven’t had a book challenge in more than 20 years. “Our communities trust us,” she said.
But Exman said she felt as if she needed to flag certain books for removal because she was worried about what consequences teachers could face.
“I want to protect our teachers,” she said. “This isn’t fair to them and they don’t want to lose their jobs.” Iowa, like many other states, is in the midst of a teacher shortage due to low pay and restrictive laws.
But the Iowa state legislature is following a playbook that was popularized by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and is now spreading rapidly in states controlled by Republicans. Culture warriors have zeroed in on public education over the last few years, with the goal of undermining it.
“They’re trying to demolish public education,” Beranek said. “We’ve had legislators saying we’re sinister and that we’re trying to indoctrinate children.”
Framing policies like the new law in Iowa as an issue of parental rights or protecting children, conservatives have enacted laws that prohibit books with LGBTQ+ or racial justice themes, policies that censor what teachers can say about gender identity and sexual orientation, and measures that attack transgender and nonbinary children. In short, GOP-led legislatures have launched an all-out war on their own constituents.
“There’s been a real concerted effort in our state legislature to poke holes and damage the integrity of the public education system,” Exman said. “It feels like an intentional chaos bomb.”