Iowa Legislature OKs Reynolds’ remaining education restrictions

Iowa City students protesting anti-LGBTQ legislation, standing in front of the Old Capitol, March 1, 2023. — Sid Peterson/Little Village

A bill containing Gov. Kim Reynolds’ remaining education policy priorities passed the Iowa Senate with just support from Republicans on Wednesday. The governor’s top priorities this year include: requiring written permission from parents before a teacher or school can do anything to acknowledge a transgender or nonbinary student’s identity; preventing teachers from acknowledging LGBTQ people in any lesson or classroom activity before students reach 7th grade; and removing books conservative activists find objectionable — typically books with LGBTQ themes — from schools.

Reynolds has already signed into law two bills with other top education policy priorities of hers. In February, she signed a bill immediately banning all transgender people — students, faculty, staff and visitors to schools — from using school bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. In January, the governor signed a bill creating a voucher-style system to direct public school funds to private schools.

Wednesday’s vote was the second time Republicans in the Iowa Senate have approved SF 462 on a party-line vote. The bill had been amended by the Iowa House.

“This bill is unnecessary and blatantly hateful,” Democratic Sen. Molly Donahue of Cedar Rapids, a teacher, said during the floor debate. “In addition to book bans, this bill strips civil rights from children to be who they are at school, forcing them to lose the space that was once a safe place for them, and putting a wedge between students and teachers and some parents.”

Senate President Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, assured the Senate that he and his colleagues supporting the bill don’t hate young transgender people, but Zaun does think they may be mentally unbalanced.

“I don’t hate these young people. No one in this chamber hates young people,” he said. “These issues that we’re talking about here today should be done with the parents, through a psychologist or a counselor. They shouldn’t be done in schools.”

Protester against the state law banning transgender girls from playing girls sport at school and universities, March 11, 2022. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Changes made to the bill on Wednesday include a refinement of the books to be banned in schools. Only books determined to be “age appropriate” would be permitted. The only firm definition of that term in the bill is “‘Age-appropriate’ does not include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act as defined” in Iowa Code. An exemption for the Bible and other religious texts that contain descriptions of sex acts was added.

Zaun used the memoir Gender Queer as an example of the sort of book he wants banned from schools.

“This material is disgusting, and does not belong in our schools,” he said about the book.

The award-winning 2019 graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe has won awards and been widely praised by critics for its story about the author’s journey to coming to terms with a nonbinary identity and coming out to family and friends. According to the American Library Association, it has become the most frequently challenged book in the country.

In 2021, Teri Patrick filed a complaint with West Des Moines Community Schools, objecting to the book being available to students in the Valley Southwoods Freshman High School’s library, demanding it be removed. Patrick is the education chair of the Polk County Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that has been very active at the state capitol during this legislative session.

After a review, the West Des Moines school board voted in March 2022 not to ban Gender Queer. Patrick appealed that decision to the Iowa Board of Education. In August, the board voted against hearing the appeal.

Another Senate amendment restored the penalties for teachers and other licensed school staff who make any accommodations for transgender or nonbinary students — even just referring to them by their preferred names — without first receiving written permission from a student’s parents to do so, or by using or giving students access to unapproved books. Repeat offenders could have their licenses to teach or other professional licenses revoked. The House had removed the penalties before approving the bill.

The Senate also removed changes to the bill made by Republicans in the House that altered the make-up of the state’s Board of Educational Examiners. The House approved replacing five of the education professionals on the board with parents of school children to be appointed by the governor.

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, a Republican from Pella and chair of the Senate Education Committee, assured his colleagues that changes like those to the board could be included in other bills, but didn’t belong in SF 462.

The bill was sent back to the Iowa House for consideration. On Thursday afternoon, the Republican majority in the House approved SF 462. It now goes to Gov. Reynolds, who will certainly sign it into law.