School groups say staff would have to review thousands of books if governor’s bill passes

By: - March 29, 2023 5:39 pm

Education group lobbyists say school districts will have to read and review thousands of books to ensure they are "age appropriate" under Gov. Kim Reynolds' education omnibus bill. (Photo by Terry Vine/Getty Images)

Lobbyists for schools and teachers’ groups told lawmakers the provision in Gov. Kim Reynolds’ “parental rights” bill requiring removal of all books with depictions of sex acts from school libraries would be difficult for Iowa schools to accomplish.

“I’m not quite sure how we’re going to find all of those books without having to read all of them,” Emily Piper with the Iowa Association of School Boards told lawmakers Wednesday. “Consider a library and a high school in an urban area that has 4,000-plus books. It’s … going to consume a lot of staff time to go through every single one of those books to make sure that they do not violate that.”

Lobbyists and members of the public weighed in on Senate File 496, the governor’s omnibus education proposal, in a House subcommittee meeting Wednesday.

The bill was amended by the Senate to include many proposals brought forward by Republicans this session. It includes a ban on instruction and materials related to gender identity and sexual orientation in K-6 classrooms. It requires school staff to inform parents if a child is believed to be transgender, and requires parental consent for students to participate in surveys or health assessments discussing issues like mental health, gender identity or illegal practices. It passed the Senate along party lines.

Multiple speakers asked lawmakers to keep the current system for book review in place at Iowa schools. Parents currently can flag books to go through their district’s “reconsideration” process, looking at if the material should be restricted by age, parental consent, or be removed from the school library. Sam Helmick, president of the Iowa Library Association, said the bill removes local control from school districts by taking away their ability to decide for themselves what is appropriate.

Supporters of the legislation said the state needs to define “age appropriateness” because of school districts allowing books like “Gender Queer,” “The Bluest Eye,” and “Lawn Boy” to stay in school libraries. Mothers told lawmakers in February their challenges of these books were not successful because local districts determined the challenged books have “literary value.”

“I appreciate that the language protects children, parents and teachers through clear definitions and guidance,” Shelly Flockhart, a parent speaking in favor of the bill, said. “This bill helps to clear up confusion on materials, books and what is age appropriate.”

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said the argument that schools would have difficulties reviewing thousands of books isn’t a reason to not pass the bill because “protecting our children is worth the time.” He also disagreed with criticisms that the bill is a measure to ban books.

“These are obscene, ridiculous books and should never been in the library in the first place,” Holt said. “When it comes to age appropriate books, I don’t think it’s ‘banning’ to establish age appropriateness in school anymore than we’re banning movies when we have an R rating on a movie.”

The bill comes after weeks of discussion on these topics through other proposals on transgender children and school material discussed this session, such as the laws Reynolds signed prohibiting students from using bathrooms that do not correspond with their designated gender at birth and other legislation limiting discussions on gender identity and sexual orientation in Iowa classrooms.

Sarah SmallCarter, the mother of a 9-year-old transgender daughter, said her child was suicidal when she was misgendered at school. The series of bills focused on LGBTQ youth and topics in school will hurt children like hers, SmallCarter said.

“If you pass this bill, there is going to be even more children, even younger than her, having those feelings inside,” she said. “Because their gender identity, their identity, the core of who they are, is being suppressed.”

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull, said he plans on looking at changes to the bill, but did not share which areas he plans to propose amending. The bill will next be discussed by the full House Education Committee.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.