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Iowa lawmakers push bill to bar teaching gender identity before high school

The golden dome of the Iowa capitol stands against a blue sky.
IPR file
Republicans in the Statehouse advanced bills Tuesday that opponents said make LGBTQ youth feel unwelcome in Iowa.

The bill bans lessons including gender identity for grades K-8, while another proposal requires consent from parents before affirming a student's transgender identity.

Republican lawmakers in the Iowa House and Senate are pushing forward multiple bills that supporters said reaffirm parents’ rights in K-12 schools. But opponents said the measures would violate the rights of transgender students and pit families against the educators that work daily with their children.

Here are details on bills that advanced Tuesday.

Restricting lessons on gender identity

Republicans on a Senate panel advanced a bill Tuesday (SF 83) that would prohibit Iowa schools from including gender identity in kindergarten through eighth grade curriculum and instruction.

Pam Gronau of Urbandale, who supports the bill, said her school district’s plan for professional development related to LGBTQ issues may include information about the history of gender.

“As a Christian family, our belief is that God created man and woman. The Bible is the only history my family needs when discussing God’s creation,” Gronau said. “The opposition will try to portray us as being anti-LGBTQ, but that simply is not true. I just want to be able to discuss these matters at home with my children in the way that I see fit, as it is my God-given right to do.”

Transgender kids and their parents said stifling conversations about gender identity would lead to more bullying and mental health issues for LGBTQ students.

Jill Bjorklund of Ankeny was at the hearing with her seven-year-old daughter Lily, who is transgender. Bjorklund said her family is also Christian, and it was during bedtime prayers that Lily started revealing the deep feeling she had that she was a girl.

She said Lily has been so happy since she started living as her true self.

“This bill would turn her safe, accepting school into a land mine for her teachers. One wrong move addressing her needs and they’d be breaking the law, possibly facing lawsuits,” Bjorklund said. “Can you imagine the enormous stress that my daughter and others like her will carry with them, being told that a large part of who they are is so bad that it is illegal for teachers to acknowledge it at school?”

Bjorklund said the bill won’t stop transgender kids from existing, but it will make it harder for them to keep on living.

Sen. Jeff Taylor, R-Sioux Center, said discussions of gender identity aren’t age appropriate for elementary and middle school students. But he said the bill would not prevent kids from expressing their gender identity, or from speaking with school counselors about gender identity.

Taylor and Sen. Cherielynn Westrich, R-Ottumwa, voted to advance the bill. They are two of the 16 co-sponsors of the bill.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, did not support the bill. He said school curriculum should address the needs of all students, including those who are transgender. Quirmbach said he’s concerned about the mental health of transgender students.

Parental consent to affirm transgender identity

Under a separate bill advancing to the full Iowa House (HF 9), parents would have to provide written consent before a school could call a transgender student by a name or pronouns that affirm their gender identity.

The proposal would prohibit school districts from “facilitating any accommodation that is intended to affirm a student’s gender identity” without a parent’s permission. Schools also could not knowingly withhold information about a student’s gender identity or their intention to transition to a different gender.

Andy Sutton of Des Moines testifies against HF 9.
Grant Gerlock
Andy Sutton is a teacher in Des Moines schools and the parent of a transgender student who opposes a House bill requiring parental consent before affirming a student's gender identity. "My child continues to find safe spaces with teachers who affirm them and instill confidence in them."

Supporters of the bill told lawmakers in a subcommittee hearing Tuesday that passing the measure is a matter of affirming parents’ rights. They said educators should not talk with students about something as important as their gender identity without involving a parent.

“Children are the sole responsibility of the parents,” said Patty Alexander of Indianola. “A teacher is not the parent. We need educators, schools and administrators to stay in their lane.”

LGBTQ advocates told lawmakers that many transgender youth keep their identity confidential because it could expose them to bullying or abuse at school or at home.

“Many of the students who we work with one-on-one have been kicked out of their homes due to abusive and non-affirming environments,” said Damian Thompson of Iowa Safe Schools. “Our government should be working to ensure safe and supportive schools and this legislation does the exact opposite.”

Other opponents of the bill said students themselves should have control over who knows about their gender identity and when they discuss it at home. Agatha Snyder Maul, who goes to school in Waukee, testified against the bill because it could force their classmates to come out before they’re ready.

“As a gender-fluid kid in sixth grade, I have many friends who trust the school counselors and are still struggling to come out to the teachers and I don’t want them to feel even more uncomfortable,” Snyder Maul said. “Just having one supportive adult can reduce suicide by a degree, and I have a lot of friends who have tried to commit suicide because of these laws.”

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Hull, said one of the driving forces behind the bill is opposition to a transgender student policy adopted by the Linn-Mar school district last year. That policy allows students in seventh grade and up to seek a gender support plan and keep it private from their parents.

Shortly after the policy was adopted, upset parents held a closed meeting with Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson. Parents opposed to the policy have also sued the district in federal court with the backing of the conservative group Parents Defending Education.

Wheeler said at the subcommittee that requiring advance parental consent for gender affirming practices in the classroom is no different than asking parents to sign off on other school activities.

“You want to take them on a field trip or a class trip, a parent needs to consent to that,” Wheeler said. “But holy moly, if the kids wants to change their name at school or they want to identify as something different than the sex at birth, cut the parents out.”

The bill passed out of subcommittee. Later Tuesday evening it also passed through the House Education Committee. That makes the bill eligible for debate and a vote on the House floor.

Senate bill would drop model for social emotional learning

The Iowa Department of Education would be forced to drop its current framework for social emotional learning curriculum, or SEL, under a bill (SF 85) advanced out of a Senate subcommittee Tuesday.

The Iowa Department of Education provides materials from a nationally recognized research organization known as CASEL, or the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, to help districts develop their own programs.

The department’s website describes SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

Supporters of the Senate bill echoed conservative activists who have targeted CASEL and social emotional learning programs across the country, tying it to other lightning-rod issues such as critical race theory.

In testimony before state lawmakers, they associated social emotional learning with “Marxist indoctrination,” “groupthink,” “LGBT ideology” and “collectivism,” and said it takes away from academic learning.

“It may seem innocent on the surface, but further evaluation shows that SEL creates a Trojan horse for teachers and the creators of curriculum to inject their own values that are not necessary for the school setting, and conflict with values of parents in the local community,” said Angie Wenell.

Other supporters claimed that parts of CASEL-based curriculum that focus on social justice violate HF 802, the law passed in 2021 that sets out 10 concepts that cannot be taught in Iowa schools, including the idea that any individual should feel guilt or discomfort due to their race or sex.

“Our governor signed a bill into law, HF 802, in June of 2021 that was designed to protect our children from some of these examples,” said Oliver Bardwell of Van Meter. Bardwell and other parents petitioned the Van Meter school board to review the school district’s SEL curriculum. The board decided in December to keep its current program in place.

“But (HF 802) wasn’t enough and much of this law has been ignored and circumvented through CASEL and SEL,” Bardwell said. “It’s time to get back to the basics and preserve the integrity of our education system.”

Opponents of the bill said it is short-sighted for lawmakers to criticize schools over SEL curriculum that is meant to help students understand and manage their emotions, skills that are underdeveloped due to interruptions of school and social life caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m standing here in shock that anybody would be against teaching children how to process things at a time when suicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 10-34,” said Leslie Carpenter of Iowa Mental Health Advocacy. “I’m sort of stunned.”

Sen. Lynn Evans, R-Aurelia, said that although the bill would remove CASEL from the IDOE website but it would be up to local districts to choose their own SEL curriculum.

“We’re no longer going to promote CASEL as the Iowa model on the Department of Education website,” Evans said. “I see nothing in here that prohibits a school district from using CASEL or other materials if it’s a local decision.”

The bill would also require parents to give prior consent before a student can be included in any survey that may touch on topics such as political or religious affiliations, sexual behavior, relationships with family members or mental health problems. Parents can currently opt-out of such surveys.

Opponents of that provision of the bill warned that it could leave schools and lawmakers in the dark on many issues affecting students.

“We’re not going to be able to see if our programming has reduced drug and alcohol use among teenagers,” said Keenan Crow of One Iowa, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “We’re not going to be able to see if we’ve been able to reduce unprotected sexual activity. We’re not going to be able to see if any of these high-risk behaviors are actually being impacted if we don’t have data.”

Sen. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said it should be up to parents whether that information is made available about their children.

“Delicate and sensitive information such as outlined here is a private and a tender part of a student’s life, the family’s beliefs and the student-family relationships and is very personal,” Salmon said. “And schools have no business getting this kind of information without the consent of the parent.”

The bill passed out of subcommittee with Salmon and Evans voting in favor. It now goes to the full Senate Education Committee.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter