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Iowa Senate discusses controversial books, private school scholarships and school funding

John Pemble
IPR file
A Senate subcommittee moved ahead on voucher-style scholarships, requirements for schools to list library book titles and a civics test that high school students would have to pass before graduating.

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ top education priorities advanced in the Iowa Senate Wednesday as bills detailing parents’ rights in schools and setting next year’s increase in state school aid also advanced out of Senate subcommittees.

Reynolds’ expansive education bill (SSB 3080) includes her answer to recent school book controversies, state-funded scholarship accounts that could be used to pay for private school, and a requirement for high school students to pass a civics test in order to graduate.

Under the bill, public schools would be required to provide extensive information on their websites about the classes they teach and the materials they use. A summary of each class would have to be posted online along with the titles of all books, videos, articles and other materials used by teachers.

A list of all the books available in the libraries would be required to be published online along with information about how to request for a book to be removed.

In recent months, parents in several Iowa school districts and across the U.S. have campaigned to have certain books removed from school libraries for content they find offensive.

If a district refuses to remove a book that a parent objects to, Reynolds’ bill would allow the family to appeal to the State Board of Education for a different outcome.

Families could also apply for voucher-style scholarships that could be spent on enrollment in a private school. The state-funded scholarships proposed in the bill would be worth around $5,300 per year and could also be spent on tutoring and online school.

Reynolds told reporters in Des Moines Wednesday that the bill gives options to parents who find that their beliefs don’t match their local school.

“There are great schools, great teachers doing great things out there but if it doesn’t reflect your values then as a parent you should have an option," Reynolds said. "And it shouldn’t just be for wealthy people that can afford to send their child to the school they want to."

The state-funded accounts would be open to a family of four earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, which would be $111,000 per year, or any child with an individualized education plan. Up to 10,000 students would be eligible in the first year of the program.

Melissa Peterson of the Iowa State Education Association opposes the overall bill. It adds time-consuming requirements for public schools to share information about books, she said, but does not ask private schools that would receive state scholarship money to follow the same standards.

“If you are going to accept taxpayer dollars to fund your education opportunity, you ought to have to adhere to rules where people can then follow up on their taxpayer dollars and know what’s going on with them,” Peterson said.

Several students of Christian schools in Des Moines spoke in favor of the bill in the Senate subcommittee and said state assistance would help more families to be able to afford a private school education for their children.

Sen. Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, said she supports the bill to give low income students access to more options outside of public school.

“Do you know who is not allowed to choose their education? It’s parents who don’t have the means to choose, and this bill addresses those parents,” said Sinclair, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.

The bill moved to the full Education Committee. Last year, a similar proposal on state-funded scholarships passed the Senate but not the Iowa House.

Nicole Hasso of Johnston speaks in an Iowa Senate subcommittee favor of a bill requiring parental consent before students can borrow school library books that may be considered obscene.
Grant Gerlock
Nicole Hasso of Johnston speaks in an Iowa Senate subcommittee favor of a bill requiring parental consent before students can borrow school library books that may be considered obscene.

Parent Bill of Rights

Another bill sent to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday is a “Parent Bill of Rights” that would require a student to have parental consent before borrowing a school library book that may be considered obscene.

Under the bill, parents could demand to know what their school is teaching, review student records, ask to see their kids during the school day and request school board documents.

Sen. Amy Sinclair said most of those requirements already exist in practice and in state or federal law.

“What we’re doing here today is we’re taking Supreme Court precedent and we’re taking federal regulations and we’re taking what ought to be best policies and procedures for all school boards and we’re codifying them, because that gives parents and the legal guardians of children the legal authority to act in the best interests of their child as they move forward in their education,” Sinclair said at the subcommittee meeting.

Parents can already opt-out of school lessons and materials. What’s new in the bill, Sinclair said, are provisions that would require prior consent from a parent before any books or school materials that might be considered obscene are shared in class or checked out from the school library.

A group of parents who spoke at the subcommittee took particular aim at the graphic memoir Gender Queer, which has been a frequent target in school board meetings in Iowa and across the U.S. because it includes depictions of oral sex.

Iowa obscenity law exempts schools and public libraries that use materials for educational purposes as well as works with “literary, scientific, political or artistic value.”

Sonya Swan of Iowans for Informed Consent said she supports the proposed bill but asked for obscenity law to be changed to give parents more power to remove books from schools.

“I would really love to see that part changed in the Iowa code because, from my perspective, children should not have access to obscene materials in a school period,” Swan said.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said taking that step would amount to an attempt to upend years of Supreme Court precedent.

“The definition in code is really the end product of literally decades and decades of Supreme Court rulings,” Quirmbach said. “You want to make sure you have a firm legal, constitutional ground when you go after material that you believe to be obscene.”

Senate proposes 2.25 percent funding increase

A Senate bill advancing to the Education Committee would provide a 2.25 percent increase in state aid for schools.

That would provide around $150 million in new foundation aid for public schools, but is slightly less than the 2.5 percent increase Reynolds has proposed.

Public school advocates said the Republican proposals are too low to cover the cost of inflation and to keep wages competitive for teachers and other school workers.

Sen. Chris Cournoyer, R-Le Claire, called the proposal an amount schools can plan for.

“It’s sustainable and it’s responsible. It may not be the number that people are asking for but it’s a number that you’re getting in the first 30 days that you can count on," Cournoyer said.

State law requires the legislature to pass school funding within the first 30 days of the session.

Margaret Buckton of the Urban Education Network of Iowa said a 2.25 percent increase does not allow schools to keep up with rising expenses.

“We’re not keeping up with inflation that’s expected to be at 7-8 percent. We’re not keeping up with the size of our economy, either our growth in revenues or our growth in gross domestic product,” Buckton said. “We’re not keeping up with the private sector job market.”

Buckton said schools are having a harder time holding onto teachers and school workers in a more competitive job market while also helping students to make up for lost learning and address mental health challenges from the pandemic.

Democrats are calling for a one-year increase in state aid of 5 percent, or around $300 million, and are criticizing Republicans for taking a conservative approach on school aid while also proposing tax cuts.

“Iowa farmers know better than to eat your seed corn,” said Sen. Quirmbach, the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. “Short-changing education is the equivalent of eating your seed corn. It’s condemning your future to a low-growth, low-income path and I don’t want to be on that. We can afford a 5 percent increase this year.”

At a Des Moines event promoting her tax cut plans, Reynolds pushed back against claims that Republican school funding proposals are inadequate. According to Reynolds, at the end of December Iowa school districts had $793 million in unspent federal COVID-19 relief funds which she suggested would also be at their disposal.

“I think it’s a fair amount,” Reynolds said of her proposed 2.5 percent increase in state aid. “I don’t think it’s a lack of funding that we’re providing for our K-12 education.”

The Senate school aid proposal advanced to the Education Committee. House Republican leaders have not announced their proposed school funding increase.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa