Governor signs education bills, including ban on school books depicting sex

By: - May 26, 2023 2:19 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation May 26 that bans certain books from school libraries. (Photo by Diyosa Carter/Getty Images)

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed several of her priority education bills into law Friday, including “parental rights” legislation that would ban books that depict sex from school libraries.

Reynolds signed seven education bills into law during a private event Friday. Changes to Iowa’s education system — and how LGBTQ students and topics are approached — have been the top priorities for Republicans in the 2023 legislative session.

When Reynolds and Republican lawmakers held an event with the “parental rights” organization Moms for Liberty in February, the governor said GOP lawmakers were committed to putting parents in control of their children’s educational journey. In a news release Friday, Reynolds said that goal was met.

“This legislative session, we secured transformational education reform that puts parents in the driver’s seat, eliminates burdensome regulations on public schools, provides flexibility to raise teacher salaries, and empowers teachers to prepare our kids for their future,” Reynolds said. “Education is the great equalizer and everyone involved – parents, educators, our children – deserves an environment where they can thrive.”

The highest-profile bill signed Friday, Senate File 496, bans books with written and visual depictions of sex acts from school libraries, with an exemption for religious texts like the Bible, Torah and Qur’an.

The new law also prohibits instruction and materials involving “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Schools are required to notify parents if their child requests to use a different name or pronouns than what they were given at birth under the new law, which also stipulates school staff cannot knowingly provide “false or misleading” information on a child’s gender identity to their parents.

Democrats and LGBTQ advocates said the legislation is one of many attacks against transgender youth this legislative session. Reynolds signed into law two measures in March on transgender youth: A ban on gender-affirming health care for minors, prohibiting transgender patients from receiving hormones, puberty blockers or any surgical intervention before age 18, and a ban on transgender people using school bathrooms or locker rooms that do not correspond with their sex assigned at birth.

The latest measure continues Republicans’ attacks against LGBTQ youth, advocates said. The newest law is “anti-child, anti-parent, and anti-educator,” Becky Tayler, executive director for Iowa Safe Schools, said in a news release.

“With the stroke of a pen, Governor Reynolds has punctuated her crusade against LGBTQ youth this session,” Tayler said. “Her relentless attacks on the LGBTQ community have placed her shameful record adjacent to the infamous Anita Bryant and Fred Phelps.”

Reynolds also signed her “school flexibility” measure into law Friday, another of the priorities she laid out at the beginning of the 2023 session. Senate File 391 changes the state’s requirements for Iowa public schools in an effort to help schools address staffing shortages. The measure allows teachers to instruct multiple sequential units of the same subject at the same time in a classroom, and shifts some hiring requirements to allow community college instructors to more easily teach high school classes, and allow public librarians to work as school librarians.

The new law also lowers some graduation requirements for Iowa high school students. Students will only need to take two sequential units of a foreign language and two units of “fine arts” to graduate; the bill also removes the requirement for a “financial literacy” class and allows students in athletic extracurriculars to get exemptions from physical education requirements.

Republicans said the changes are needed to address the teacher shortages across the state, especially those in rural areas. Reynolds also signed House File 614, easing teacher licensure requirements for those licensed in other states or countries.

Democrats argued these shortages are happening because the majority party is underfunding public schools.

In January, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed her private school scholarship program into law, allowing families to create Education Savings Accounts of state funds for private school tuition and associated costs, which will divert some per-pupil funding from Iowa schools to private institutions through the ESA program. Public school districts will receive about $1,200 for each student living in the district who attends a private school through the new system.

House Democrats said Iowans don’t support book bans or vouchers. Reynolds is playing a “political game” catering to special interests and politicians, Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque, said in a news release Friday.

“For all the LGBTQ+ kids and families who feel targeted by the Governor and her allies this session, we see you and we love you,” James said. “You deserve the freedom to be yourself and be happy without interference from politicians. We’re going to keep fighting for you.

“To all the dedicated public school educators wrapping up the school year, we are grateful for your work and commitment to our public school kids. We trust you and will do everything we can to support you, not blame you.”

Other bills signed Friday include House File 430, a measure that gives parents a larger say in the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, and House File 604, a “teacher empowerment” bill creating a new disciplinary procedure for teachers dealing with violent or disruptive students.

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said he was disappointed by the governor’s support of “national anti-public education groups with cookie-cutter legislation” over Iowa students who will be negatively impacted by the measures passed this year.

“Today, with her veto power, Governor Reynolds had an opportunity to support the thousands of great education professionals who work hard to educate, support, and elevate the students in their care,” Beranek said in a news release. “She chose not to exercise this power, and instead, cemented laws that are designed to intimidate, censor, and harm the educators and students who work in and attend our public schools.”

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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.