House gives final approval to Reynolds’ priority education bills

Bills include restrictions on topics related to sex and gender identity

By: - April 20, 2023 6:24 pm

Two of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ legislative proposals won final approval from the Iowa legislature in the House Thursday, April 20. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch and illustration via Canva)

The Iowa House sent two bills containing Gov. Kim Reynolds’ education priorities to her desk Thursday, including restricting some school books, prohibiting LGBTQ and gender-identity topics in classrooms and reducing some curriculum and educator credential requirements.

House lawmakers gave Senate File 496 and Senate File 391 final approval Thursday. The bills had bounced between chambers as Republicans worked out issues such as how to approach informing parents about a change in their children’s gender identity, which books should be limited for sexual content and how to best help schools deal with teacher shortages.

Reynolds brought up these issues in January as some of her top priorities for the 2023 legislative session, alongside the private school scholarship program already signed into law. The governor told reporters she was letting the parental rights bill go through the legislative process, but did not weigh in on the changes lawmakers made.

“Well, I support my bill that I put forward,” Reynolds earlier this month, saying if lawmakers can reach a consensus, then her office will “do a review of the bill at that point and make a decision and know how we move forward.”

House approves Senate changes on books, staff penalties

The “parental rights” bill has held a higher profile this legislative session, with Democrats criticizing provisions to remove books from school libraries and to force school staff to out transgender students to their parents. Senators walked back some of the House’s proposals on the bill Wednesday.

The House approved those changes in a 57-38 vote Thursday. Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull, said the changes will bring “sanity” back to Iowa’s education system.

In its final form, the bill prohibits most books with written or visual depictions of sex act — not just “explicit” sex depictions, as the House amendment suggested. There’s an exception for religious texts. Schools cannot provide “false or misleading” information on a child’s gender identity to their parents, and school staff must have written consent from a parent to use a name or pronoun that differs from a child’s assigned gender at birth.

Teachers or school administrators in violation of these proposed rules would receive a warning for their first offense and a Board of Educational Examiners disciplinary hearing for any subsequent offenses. The bill also prohibits instruction and material involving “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” for kindergarten through sixth grade.

Rep. Elinor Levin, D-Iowa City, said the legislation “fundamentally misunderstands” the relationship between school staff and the students they serve. Teachers would have to betray the trust of kids who are examining their own identity or are curious about the topics restricted from discussion in the legislation, she said.

“Folks who choose to serve in our public schools have a responsibility to the kids who are entrusted to their care,” Levin said. “Having worked as a public school teacher, I can tell you, we love our kids. We want the best for them, and we will not betray their trust. In several ways, this legislation would require teachers to break that trust.”

Democrats called Republican lawmakers hypocritical for arguing the goal of the bill is to protect Iowa children in light of other legislation discussed this session.

Rep. Sue Cahill, D-Marshalltown, said Republicans care about keeping children safe from books and discussions of LGBTQ identities, but don’t care about safety concerns about teens working evenings in a bar under the child labor bill, or what happens when their family loses SNAP benefits under a bill changing benefit eligibility. The Senate amendment shows they doesn’t care about children’s safety by striking requirements on teaching on HPV and AIDS, she said. The bill requires discussion of sexually transmitted diseases more broadly.

“You want parents’ rights, but only when it is in things you believe in,” Cahill said. “I’ve asked it before and I will ask it again: Where are my rights? Where are the rights of other parents who don’t agree with you?:

LGBTQ organizations also criticized the bill’s passage, saying it and other bills passed by Republican lawmakers, such as the bans on gender-affirming care for transgender youth and school bathroom use outside of gender assigned at birth, are attacks on LGBTQ youth.

“The Iowa Legislature again moves to alienate and exclude LGBTQ youth while trampling on the First Amendment,” Courtney Reyes, One Iowa executive director, said in a news release. “America is a country of freedom of speech and freedom of ideas. Those freedoms end when politicians ban books and censor curricula simply because some people find them uncomfortable.”

But Wheeler said the bill makes commonsense changes that were directly inspired by the actions of some Iowa schools. While some Democrats argued schools already keep parents informed, Wheeler pointed to Linn-Mar Community School District, where a student can request a “gender support plan” to begin socially transitioning and choose not to involve their parent in the process.

“It is wrong for schools to keep secrets from parents about their kids,” Wheeler said. “It is wrong to push political agendas in the classroom. And it is wrong to put pornography in front of children.”

House approves bill loosening curriculum requirements

The House approved the Senate’s amendment on the governor’s “educational flexibility” bill Wednesday, which aims to give schools new tools for addressing teacher shortages. The bill removes curriculum requirements for Iowa high schools, such as decreasing the foreign language requirement from four units to two. It also removes a “financial literacy” class requirement with the plan of incorporating those financial topics into other classes.

High school teachers would be allowed to teach multiple sequential subjects in one classroom over the same period. The bill would allow community college instructors to more easily teach high school classes. It also would remove the requirement that school librarians be trained as teachers, allowing public librarians to take these open roles.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Independence, called for support of the Senate changes. He said schools would still be allowed to offer foreign language classes or other classes past the lowered limits in the bill.

Cahill thanked Johnson for working with Democrats on the House amendment, but said the Senate was “watering down” the quality of education in Iowa schools. She said the bill will lower standards for both teachers and students, but said she was pleased with one aspect of the bill in light of another piece of legislation the House passed in April.

“In my opinion, the goal of undermining public education has been achieved by the majority party,” Cahill said. “I have to admit that I’m really glad that we kept in making CPR a graduation requirement. So that when someone does access a gun in the parking lot, our students will know what to do to help those who are injured.”

Senate File 391 passed the House 59-36, with five members absent. The bill goes to Reynolds for final approval.

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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.