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Bills on obscene books, transgender athletes and school vouchers still alive in the Statehouse

There are ways for lawmakers to keep bills alive, but most proposals must get through the "funnel" to have any chance to pass this year.
Grant Gerlock
There are ways for lawmakers to keep bills alive, but most proposals must get through the "funnel" to have any chance to pass this year.

Education was a big topic in the first several weeks of the 2022 legislative session with proposed bills that would create state-funded scholarships to pay for private school, make it a crime for a teacher to allow a student to borrow a book that is found to be obscene and establish a ban on transgender girls playing girls’ sports.

But now the Republican-controlled legislature has passed the deadline known as the funnel, when a bill must pass through a House or Senate committee in order to stay in consideration.

There are always legislative maneuvers that can bring a bill back from the brink, but here is where some of the most contentious proposals regarding K-12 in Iowa education currently stand.

Gov. Reynolds’ education bill

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ priority bill on education (SSB 3080) has several parts. It would require school districts to publish online a list all of the textbooks and other materials teachers use in classes as well as the titles of all the books in school libraries. When a parent's request to remove a book is denied, the bill would give them the chance to appeal their claim before the Iowa State Board of Education.

It also includes a plan to create voucher-style “student first scholarships” that could be spent on tuition at a private school. The money would be available to up to 10,000 students in the first year, divided between students with individualized education plans, or IEPs, and any other student whose family earns up to four-times the federal poverty level.

The scholarships would be worth about $5,300, or 70 percent of the state funding per-student for public schools.

Other provisions in the governor’s bill would require high school students to pass a civics test in order to graduate high school, and would require districts to include siblings if a student is approved for open enrollment.

The full proposal was passed in the Senate Education Committee, which means it met the funnel deadline and can be debated on the Senate floor.

The House is also keeping Reynolds’ proposals alive, but has separated them into three different bills.

Last year, Reynolds’ voucher proposal passed in the Senate but stalled in the House. Changes were made to this year’s version in part to appeal to House members. For instance, while 70 percent of a student’s state education funding would go toward their scholarship, the remailing 30 percent would go into a fund that would be reallocated to small, rural public schools.

“We've made a lot of consensus and compromises with the new bill that I put forward this year,” Reynolds recently told reporters. “But we're going to continue to work with legislators and listen and do what we can to get it across the finish line.”

A separate proposal (SF 128) from Sen. Jim Carlin, R-Sioux City, that would make “education savings grants” available to all Iowa K-12 students did not come up for a vote by the Senate Education Committee, and so did not meet the funnel deadline.

Grant Gerlock
Gov. Kim Reynolds visited St. Theresa Catholic School in Des Moines to promote her plan to provide state-funded scholarship to some students who chose to attend private schools.

Ban on transgender girls in girls’ sports

A bill that would prohibit transgender girls from participating in girls’ athletics in Iowa was advanced by the House Education Committee, moving the bill to the House floor. A similar bill is advancing in the Senate, as well.

Under the proposal (HF 2416), only students identified as female at birth could play girls’ sports. It does not address the eligibility of transgender boys playing boys’ sports.

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, told the House committee that the bill enforces a level playing field, although he said there have not been major competitiveness issues in Iowa to date.

“It does not ban anybody from playing sports,” said Wheeler, one of the bill’s sponsors. “It simply says if you are a biological female you are going to play girls’ sports, if you want. If you are a biological male you do not get to play girls’ sports.”

The proposal differs from the current policy of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union which allows transgender girls to compete if they identify as female both at school, socially and at home.

Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, called the bill “state-sanctioned bullying.”

“This bill creates a barrier for a small, small group of children who are already marginalized by society,” Mascher said. “No child in this state should be discriminated against based on their sex or gender.”

The version of the bill passed by the Senate Education Committee (SF 2342) extends the proposed ban to community colleges and public universities in Iowa. House Speaker Pat Grassley said he supports doing the same.

When asked about the proposed ban, Gov. Reynolds said allowing transgender girls to compete would “do away with girls’ sports.”

“Girls have dreams and aspirations of earning a scholarship to help pay for college. Girls have dreams and aspirations of one day competing in the Olympics,” Reynolds said. “So it's a fairness issue.”

Charging teachers with a crime for sharing obscene books

A bill moving to the Iowa Senate floor would make it an aggravated misdemeanor for a teacher to provide a student a book from the school library that is considered obscene. It was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

The proposal (SF 2198) follows campaigns in school board meetings in Iowa and across the U.S. to remove library books that include explicit images or describe sex, incest or sexual assault. Many of the books are from writers of color or LGBTQ authors and deal with racial inequality and gender identity.

Opponents of the bill have pointed out that school districts already have policies to review books and argued that the legislature should leave local boards in charge of decisions on books and curriculum.

“I think we should trust our local school districts to do the right thing and work together on making sure that parents’ voices are heard and that we also aren’t having one parent decide for the entire population what they believe is right and wrong,” said Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.

A violation under the bill could result in fines and a sentence of up to two years in jail.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, said he doesn’t want any teachers to go to jail but added that the bill would force school boards to listen to parents who are raising objections to books they find offensive.

“This bill has teeth in it,” Zaun said. “This bill is about giving parents some power to be able to say what is wrong and what they find is inappropriate that is being taught in the classroom.”

The definition of what counts as obscene in state law doesn’t cover all the books that some parents would like it to because a book is judged as a whole. Iowa law follows U.S. Supreme Court precedent which holds that a book is obscene only if the complete work “lacks serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.”

Bill sponsor Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, has said his proposal would allow parents to put a judge, not just school officials, in the position of determining whether a book is obscene or not. Under the bill, parents could also bring lawsuits against their school districts, which could lead to fines of up to $500 per day unless the district removes the book in question.

The Senate proposal is not likely to find favor in the Iowa House where Speaker Grassley said Republicans would take a different approach to address recent book controversies.

“We're still working through some of those transparency issues, whether it's with the governor's bill, whether it's through bills that we're creating right now,” Grassley said. “We want to make sure there is transparency in our children's education, making sure the parents have involvement, but I don't think that the criminal penalty piece is something that's going to be part of our conversation.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would charge teachers with a misdemeanor for lending obscene books from the school library, but Republican leaders in the Iowa House say they are interested in taking a different approach on book challenges in schools.
Grant Gerlock
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill that would charge teachers with a misdemeanor for lending obscene books from the school library, but Republican leaders in the Iowa House say they are interested in taking a different approach on book challenges in schools.

Cameras in classrooms

A proposal to require public schools to install live-stream cameras in classrooms is not moving forward this year.

The bill (HF 2177) died when Rep. Ray Sorensen, R-Greenfield, canceled a subcommittee meeting at the last moment. Sorensen said it was canceled in part because the Democrat assigned to the committee couldn’t be there and also because the proposal was not moving forward.

"I was never in support of it. I think it needs a lot better fencing if we're going to do something like that and a lot better explanation and a lot more time, honestly, to hear from the public on what something like that would look like strictly from a fiscal standpoint on what would it cost to put cameras in classrooms," Sorensen said. "I think we've got next year and this campaign year to visit about this bill and whether the public likes it or not."

Bill sponsor Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, said he was disappointed the subcommittee was canceled and that he introduced the bill to start a conversation about parental involvement.

“Because when I look at the remote learning, it did spark parental interest in what was going on in the schools and that's what I was trying to nurture and continue on was that, take what we learned and expand upon it,” Mommsen said.

Opponents of the bill had said it would be a violation of privacy and an unnecessary cost for schools.

Parent Bill of Rights

A proposal called a “Parent Bill of Rights” (SF 2205) was passed through the Senate Education Committee.

The bill would put together in one place several provisions of existing state and federal law that lay out parents’ ability to see school materials, check on their children or review school records.

It would also add a step before a student would have access to books or other materials at school with “sexually explicit content.”

Parents can currently opt out of school lessons if they don’t want their child to read a certain book.

The bill would instead require that parents give prior written consent before a student could borrow from the library or read in class any books that are sexually explicit, although it does not say exactly what would be included in that definition.

Consent would also be required before health screenings at school and before a student takes any survey that could reveal personal information such as religious or political affiliations.

Grant Gerlock
Gov. Kim Reynolds' education bill filled a subcommittee room at the Statehouse with supporters and opponents waiting to testify.

Teacher shortage bills

The House and Senate are both working through multiple ideas meant to help schools address a worsening shortage of teachers.

Lawmakers have said that school administrators are reporting they’re receiving only a handful of applications for jobs that in the past would have brought forward dozens of candidates.

A bill that was passed through the Senate Education Committee (SF 2202) would allow professionals in other industries to become classroom teachers more quickly when they enter the state’s teacher intern program. It would allow schools to recruit teachers by putting money toward student loan forgiveness and would let teachers who are certified in another state to apply for an Iowa teaching license if they have a job offer from an Iowa school.

The House is taking up similar proposals piece by piece. The House Education Committee has approved bills to expand the Iowa teacher intern program (HF 2421), recognize some out-of-state alternative licensing programs (HF 2085) and make Teach Iowa grants available to a wider range of new teachers (HF 2083).

Odds and ends

The House Education Committee advanced a bill that would take stronger action to decertify teachers accused of sexually abusing students (HSB 702).

A bill (HF 2298) that prohibits schools from requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 passed through the House committee.

So did a proposal (SF 2079) that would stop schools from unilaterally adding a new vaccines to the list of what’s required for children in school or day care. That list is already managed by the Iowa State Board of Health. The bill also states that exemptions to school vaccine requirements would apply during a pandemic. Currently, exemptions can be suspended during a public health crisis.

A bill that would set statewide standards for high school classes about the Bible (SF 2136) was advanced by a Senate subcommittee, but never made it through the Education Committee.

And a proposal that would allow a city council to remove a book from the public library is done for the year after it never received a subcommittee hearing (HF 2321).