© 2024 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Gender identity banned in K-6 classrooms under Senate parents’ rights bill

The U.S. and Iowa flag flying from Iowa's Capitol building.
John Pemble
IPR file
The Iowa Senate has passed a bill to prohibit instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation, and banning school library books that show or describe sexual activity.

Gender identity and sexual orientation would be banned topics in school curriculum and instruction under a wide-ranging education bill (SF 496) passed in the Iowa Senate Wednesday.

The same legislation would restrict books available in schools by redefining what counts as age appropriate. Schools would have to publish online lists of the classroom materials teachers will use and all books available to students. Also, a 70 percent score on a civics test based on the U.S. citizenship test would become a requirement for high school graduation.

The bill also includes sections Republican lawmakers said are meant to assert parents’ rights in schools. School employees would have to immediately notify parents if a child is expressing a different gender than what corresponds to their sex at birth, and any student who wishes to use a different name or pronouns at school would have to show written permission from home first.

Parents would have to opt-in to any survey not required by law that asks about a student’s mental, physical or emotional health. The bill also states that a parent or guardian bears ultimate responsibility for a child’s “medical care, moral upbringing, religious upbringing, residence, education and extracurricular activities.”

Sen. Ken Rozenboom, R-Oskaloosa, said the bill “clearly establishes guardrails that I believe most Iowans believe to be reasonable and fair.”

The ban on instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation would cover kindergarten through sixth grade, and includes tests, surveys, and school programs, which makes it similar to a bill passed in the House earlier this month.

Sen. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, said the bill creates a stigma around talking about LGBTQ students and families.

“It sends the message to the kids of LBGTQ couples, or LGBTQ kids themselves, that there is something so wrong with them that a teacher can’t even discuss or acknowledge their family,” Bennett said. “And it sets up two tiers of kids in school. Kids with a government approved identity and kids that are forced to live in a silent shadow.”

Rozenboom said parents who want their kids to learn about gender identity or sexual orientation should talk to them about it at home.

“Instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation, in my view, is totally unnecessary for elementary students,” Rozenboom said. “Parents and guardians that wish to have that conversation with their child can do so in the home or any other setting they would like, but to have that in the public school most of us, many of us, believe is inappropriate.”

A previous version of the bill would have created a statewide list of books removed by schools that would be placed under restricted access in other school districts.

That measure was dropped, but the bill now requires all school library books to be age-appropriate, which it defines to mean they cannot include descriptions of sexual activity.

Sen. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, said the bill undermines intellectual freedom and caters to conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty that have lobbied to remove or restrict books in schools that have sexually explicit material.

“It gives a handful of moms the ability to dictate everything that happens in the public schools,” Donahue said. “Where is the voice for all the other parents?”

Democrats also opposed new requirements for how schools must respond to students who express a different gender identity. The bill says schools must have parental consent before approving a student to use a different name or pronouns, and if any school employee believes a student is expressing a different gender than their sex at birth, they must immediately tell the child’s parents.

Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, said kids who feel they are not welcome to discuss their gender identity at home will become even more isolated.

“What do you think it will be like for a child or teen who confides in a teacher or counselor to be outed? Whom will they trust?” Weiner said. “They told the teacher because they needed a safe space. No more.”

Rozenboom said the bill is intended to make sure discussions around gender identity always involve parents. The measure cleared the Senate on a party line vote of 34-16 and goes to the House, which has already passed similar proposals on books and curriculum.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa