House Republicans introduce bills on school LGBT, curriculum policies

By: - January 11, 2023 5:39 pm

Iowa House Republicans are proposing bills addressing gender policies and curricula in schools. (Stock photo via Canva)

Iowa House Republicans released their first slate of legislation for the year Wednesday, including a batch of proposed new requirements for schools on curriculum and student gender identity.

One bill, House File 9, would prohibit school districts from providing any accommodations intended to affirm a student’s change in gender identity without written consent from the child’s parent or guardian.

The bill follows controversy over school policies like those at the Linn-Mar Community School District of supporting students’ gender identity transition without parental notice. District students can request a Gender Support Plan and the school will meet with the student within 10 days. Through this plan, the district can require employees and students to address the student by a new name and new pronouns and allow the student to use the restrooms and locker rooms corresponding with their gender identity.

Under the policy, the student can decide who attends the Gender Support Plan meeting, including deciding whether their parent or guardian participates. A conservative group, Parents Defending Education, filed a lawsuit in August against the school district over the policy.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, who chairs the House Education Committee, said the legislation Republicans introduced will help parents stay informed of what their children are doing and learning at school.

“Parents want to know what’s going on,” Wheeler said. “They need to know what is happening with their children. They need to be the first one to be helping their children through processes and things that they truly need help with.”

LGBTQ advocates say the measure will put transgender youth at risk. Damian Thompson, director of public policy for Iowa Safe Schools, said while Linn-Mar has the best-known transgender student support policy, many Iowa school districts have policies in place to accommodate transgender students that would be impacted by the proposed legislation.

Schools disclosing a transgender student’s identity to their parents without their permission could lead to the child being kicked out of their home or facing harm, Thompson said.

“We absolutely encourage students to come out to their parents on their own time, on their own ground, their own rules, when they are most comfortable,” Thompson said. “Ultimately, unfortunately, there are parents that are just not affirming people. And that can really put a student in danger get if they are outed, not on their own terms.”

As well as ensuring a safe home environment, Thompson said using students’ preferred pronouns in school also leads to significantly lower risk of suicide, depression and other mental health issues for transgender and nonbinary youth.

“All of these negative mental health outcomes really drop drastically if a student has one affirming person in their life,” Thompson said. “That can be a parent, an educator, a coach, faith leader, whoever, but this bill, for those students that don’t have an affirming parent, is really going to put them in harm’s way.”

But proponents of the legislation say parents need to be aware of these issues, and should be the ones to decide the best path forward for their child.

“I tend to err on the side of parents love their kids,” Wheeler said. “And so if a parent doesn’t agree necessarily with their kid’s choice, I mean, I think it’s extreme to say we’re gonna kick a 9-year-old to the curb.”

Under the new proposals, schools would also be required to make their syllabus and instructional material accessible to parents or guardians, and would include a process for parents to request their child not be provided with certain instructional materials. In addition to classroom materials, school districts would also be required to provide a comprehensive list of the books available to students in school libraries, and create a process for parents to request consideration for removing books.

Other House bills specifically target how certain subjects, like gender identity and the history of communism, are taught in Iowa classrooms. House File 12 would add a requirement that students take a social studies course that includes a “comparative discussion on political ideologies which include communism and totalitarianism,” which the bill defines as in “conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy that are essential to the founding principles of the United States.”

Another bill, House File 8, specifies that schools cannot provide instruction or material on sexual orientation or gender identity to students in kindergarten through third grade. That bill is troubling because it could reverse anti-bullying measures that school districts currently use to help protect students who are LGBTQ and those who have nontraditional family structures, Keenan Crow with One Iowa said.

“It’s taking all the tools that educators have to deal with bullying on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and throwing them up out the window,” Crow said. “If we’re saying that you can’t have any materials or announcements regarding gender identity or sexual orientation, that the very anti-bullying policies that school districts are required to publicize and to create training materials around for students are not going to be able to be shared with the students.”

But Wheeler said the legislation would not ban LGBT topics from discussion in schools.

“If a kid has, you know, same-sex parents, nothing prevents them in this bill from mentioning that in class,” Wheeler said. “It just simply says to the teacher, ‘Hey, we’re going to stick to what we’ve been teaching.'”

These proposals go hand-in-hand with the goals Gov. Kim Reynolds laid out in her Condition of the State address Tuesday. While Reynolds focused largely on her private school scholarship legislation, she has repeatedly called for giving parents more of a say in their children’s educational path.

Last session, Reynolds said her scholarship proposal would support parents who disagreed with their school district’s policies or curriculum.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I think parents need an option,” Reynolds said. “If they feel that their child is not being educated in a safe environment, or they feel that their values aren’t being represented at school, or they feel that the school district is not focused on a quality education.”

Reynolds introduced the bill Tuesday, and both the House and Senate have subcommittee meetings scheduled to discuss the bill. The Senate subcommittee is scheduled to meet 2 p.m. Thursday, and a public hearing will be held at 5 p.m. Jan. 17.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations. They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register's Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa's 4th District elections.

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