UPDATE: The Iowa House approved this bill (renumbered House File 348) on March 8 by 62 votes to 35, with Republican Michael Bergan joining all Democrats to vote no. Prior to passage, an amendment slightly altered the wording. The bill now reads, “A school district shall not provide any program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion, or instruction relating to gender identity or sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through grade six.” Original post follows.
Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley complained this week that a centerpiece of this year’s Republican education agenda has been “misconstrued.”
Grassley and House Education Committee chair Skyler Wheeler claimed Republicans are only trying to “let kids be kids.”
Their spin defies a plain reading of the bill that would remove all teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation from Iowa’s elementary schools.
HOUSE REPUBLICANS EXPAND TEACHING RESTRICTIONS
The House Education Committee voted along party lines February 15 to approve House File 8, with an amendment expanding the proposed restrictions to kindergarten through sixth grade. (The original text covered grades K-3.)
The bill is not complicated. Its key paragraph states, “A school district shall not provide any program, curriculum, material, test, survey, questionnaire, activity, announcement, promotion, or instruction of any kind relating to gender identity or sexual orientation to students” in the covered grade levels.
Committee Democrats pointed out that the bill would seem to prohibit many routine types of lessons.
State Representative Sue Cahill, who taught kindergarten for twelve years, noted that their first unit was always about the family. She said as soon as you start talking about a mother, father, brother, and sister, you are introducing the idea of a gender identity. Not all kids can learn about “empathy and compassion and respect” at home, which is why schools need to be accepting, and “need to teach them that there are differences in our world.”
She read passages from The Family Book by Todd Parr, an illustrated volume she had used in the classroom. “Some families have two moms, or two dads. Some families have one parent instead of two […] There are lots of different ways to be a family. Your family is special, no matter what kind it is.”
When Cahill asked Wheeler whether she would be allowed to read that book at school, the Republican said yes. He added that a teacher could have a picture of a same-sex spouse or say “this is my spouse.” Wheeler asserted, “What we’re basically getting at here is, as it states in here, promote what is defined in code as gender identity and sexual orientation.”
What on earth?
“INSTRUCTION OF ANY KIND”
The bill says a school district “shall not provide” any “material,” “announcement,” “or instruction of any kind” relating to the prohibited topics.
Obviously, a teacher reading a book about some families having two moms or two dads could be accused of using “material” about sexual orientation. Obviously, a teacher mentioning a same-sex spouse could be accused of making an “announcement” related to sexual orientation.
Several Democrats on the Education Committee pushed back against Wheeler’s interpretation. Cahill said that as a teacher, she would be fearful that almost anything she did in the classroom could be construed as violating this law. State Representative Molly Buck, who is also a teacher, said she too would be afraid to read the book Cahill showed, and would worry about how to respond to a student who mentioned a same-sex relationship.
In his closing remarks during the Education Committee meeting, Wheeler denied having that intention. He said the bill was “really just intended to let kids keep their innocence,” and let teachers teach math, reading, or science, without getting into topics children should discuss at home with their parents. “Just let them be kids, it’s really not that difficult.”
He then read a list of things House File 8 supposedly does not do.
It does not ban sex education. State guidelines on sexual education curriculum remain in code and this bill does not change or affect those guidelines.
The bill does not stop any instruction providing information to students to prevent sexual abuse. Schools can provide students with necessary information such as safe touches versus unsafe touches without getting into gender identity and sexual orientation.
This bill does not ban books that contain LGBTQ characters. This bill addresses restrictions on curriculum.
The weekly newsletter Grassley emailed to subscribers on February 17 used those talking points almost verbatim, and added a few more:
- This bill does not prevent a teacher in a same-sex marriage from talking about or displaying photos of their spouse.
- This bill does not prevent students from discussing these topics themselves.
- This bill does not allow for bullying based on sexual orientation or gender identity. All current bullying policies apply.
Let’s get real. The bill doesn’t just ban “promotion,” but “instruction of any kind.” Why wouldn’t that language apply to a teacher mentioning a same-sex relationship, or facilitating any classroom discussion of that?
Grassley wrote in his newsletter, “We want to let kids be kids, and allow them to grow into themselves without indoctrination in schools.”
Does he really believe a teacher mentioning a same-sex marriage could not be condemned for “indoctrination”?
Wheeler told Education Committee members the bill’s message was, “don’t talk to them about topics sexual in nature.”
There’s a reason similar proposals (which Republican politicians are pushing in many states they control) are often described as “don’t say gay” bills.
“IRREPARABLY HARMS OUR STUDENTS”
Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit that promotes supportive learning environments for LGBTQ and allied youth, sharply criticized the House Education Committee’s vote. The group’s executive director Becky Tayler said in a February 15 written statement,
By advancing this legislation, Iowa House leadership has made it perfectly clear that LGBTQ youth don’t matter to them. The concerted efforts by the Iowa Legislature to censor, discriminate against, and erase LGBTQ Iowans irreparably harms our students and makes our state an unwelcoming and unattractive place to live, invest in, and visit.
The consequences could be devastating. Iowa Safe Schools noted, “Research from the Trevor Project has shown than LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues in the classroom had a 23 percent lower rate of suicide attempts. Marginalized students who are represented in school curriculum also report higher rates of academic success.”
I grew up attending West Des Moines public schools as part of a religious minority group that makes up less than 1 percent of Iowa’s population. But I never had to worry about the governor or ruling party trying to ban elementary schools from teaching that people like me exist. I never had to listen to politicians advance their careers on a promise to eliminate “instruction of any kind” about non-Christian religions, to protect the “innocence” of my young classmates.
To those who say having a different faith tradition isn’t like being part of the LGBTQ community: it’s not the same life experience, but it is comparable from a legal perspective. The Iowa Civil Rights Act puts religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity on equal footing as protected classes, which means schools can’t discriminate on any of those grounds.
State Representative Sharon Steckman, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, alluded to that problem during the February 15 meeting, when she argued that House File 8 would violate the civil rights act.
Stopping this bill will be a heavy lift, as similar measures advance in the Iowa Senate, and Governor Kim Reynolds continues to build her brand by punching down on LGBTQ kids.
At the very least, Republicans should be honest about how their proposal would affect students and teachers.
Top image: Official photos of State Representative Skyler Wheeler (left) and Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley.