What's in, what's out of Iowa governor's big education policy bill

Both chambers of the Iowa legislature have approved versions of Governor Kim Reynolds' so-called "parental empowerment" bill, which would rewrite many state policies related to public schools. The state Senate changed some parts of the bill before approving Senate File 496 along party lines on March 22.

The House adopted a more extensive rewrite before passing the bill on April 4, by 55 votes to 42. Six Republicans (Michael Bergan, Austin Harris, Chad Ingels, Megan Jones, Brian Lohse, and Hans Wilz) joined all 36 House Democrats to vote no.

This post walks through the provisions in the governor's initial proposal (Senate Study Bill 1145), noting how each section changed during Iowa Senate debate, and again when House Republicans approved a 38-page amendment before sending the legislation back to the upper chamber.

Reynolds is likely to get most of what she asked for, but the bill that eventually lands on her desk may contain quite a few additional changes to Iowa Code.


The first section of the governor's bill would have required the Iowa Department of Education to compile and publish online "a comprehensive list" of all books that had been removed from libraries in any school district, "sortable by the book's title and author" as well as the districts that pulled the book from shelves. The department would have updated the list at least once a month.

Later portions of the bill would have required school districts to obtain prior written consent from a parent or guardian before letting any student check out any book on the state's removal list.

State Senator Ken Rozenboom explained during the March 22 debate that Senate Republicans thought maintaining a statewide removal list would be too "cumbersome." Instead, the Senate floor manager's amendment stipulated that school libraries may contain only "age-appropriate" materials, adding that age-appropriate "does not include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act" as defined elsewhere in Iowa Code.

During last week's House Education subcommittee on the bill, several speakers pointed out that this broad language would exclude many works of classic literature. Keenan Crow of One Iowa listed more than a dozen well-known books that contain depictions of sex acts.

The House Republican amendment preserved the Senate's approach on "age-appropriate" materials, tweaking the language to say those don't include materials with "graphic descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act." Democratic State Representative Sue Cahill pointed out during the House floor debate that "graphic" is not defined in Senate File 496 or elsewhere in Iowa Code. Whether certain descriptions of sexual encounters are too graphic for a school library would be a subjective call.


Inspired by legislation Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has championed, Reynolds' bill stipulated,

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 activity to students in kindergarten through grade three.

House and Senate Republicans introduced several bills this year to limit instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation (rather than "sexual activity"). Early last month, the House approved a bill stating,

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.

Bergan was the only Republican to vote against the proposal.

During the committee discussion and floor debate, many House Democrats raised concerns that teachers would not be able to answer simple questions or acknowledge that LGBTQ families exist. For instance, reading a children's book that mentions how some families have two moms or two dads could be criticized as a lesson on sexual orientation.

State Representative Sharon Steckman read from a fifth-grade lesson used in Mason City public schools. The goal was to help students get away from gender stereotyping (for instance, don't assume someone is a boy just because the person likes math or sports). Some might construe that as a lesson about gender identity.

During last month's debate on Senate File 482, the bill barring transgender people from using school bathrooms that align with their gender identity, Steckman pointed out that it would be difficult for teachers to explain to students why a classmate suddenly needed to use a different restroom without providing instruction on gender identity.

Senate Republicans added the "don't say gay/trans" language verbatim to the governor's education bill. It remains in the version of the bill House members approved on April 4.


Taking her cue from anti-vaccine advocates and the Moms for Liberty organization, the governor's bill removed language requiring instruction about AIDS, the human papillomavirus (HPV), and the vaccine that prevents HPV. Senate and House Republicans kept this provision intact.

When presenting the bill at an Iowa Senate subcommittee in February, the governor's legislative liaison Molly Severn downplayed the importance of this edit. "Iowa Code currently requires teaching characteristics of communicable diseases, as well as educating students about sexually-transmitted diseases and their treatments," she said. "The governor's proposed language supports the continuation of such practices without naming in code each disease that may be included in such teaching."

Republican State Representative Skyler Wheeler echoed that talking point while floor managing Senate File 496. He repeatedly noted that schools would not be forbidden from teaching students about AIDS or HPV. But without mandatory language in code, some school districts (especially where social conservatives and anti-vaxxers are a powerful force) would attempt to avoid controversy by altering curriculum.

As a result, some Iowa students would never learn there's a vaccine that can prevent several types of cancer. The HPV vaccine is only effective if given before infection, making it important to educate students before they become sexually active. Randy Essex described his bout with throat cancer in a recent Des Moines Register guest column: "I cannot fathom why parents (and governments) would not do everything in their power to protect children from suffering this later in life."


The governor's bill would have required high school students to score at least 70 percent on the U.S. citizenship exam to graduate. Those who failed would be able to retake the civics test "as many times as necessary." Senate Republicans kept that provision in Senate File 496.

During the House Education subcommittee on March 29, representatives of several education organizations warned against imposing a "high-stakes exam" on students. House Republicans took the civics test section out of their version of the bill.


The governor's bill stated that parents or guardians must provide written consent before schools could administer any survey or examination not required by law that is "designed to assess a student's mental, emotional, or physical health."

This language appeared to be aimed at the Iowa Youth Survey, which includes questions about students' "attitudes and experiences regarding alcohol and other drug use and violence, and their perceptions of their peer, family, school, and neighborhood/community environments." The findings are valuable to public health advocates and some government agencies.

Senate Republicans expanded this part of the bill, creating a new code section on "Protection of student rights." The language would require parental consent before schools administer "any survey, analysis, activity, or evaluation" that reveals any of the following information about the student or student's family: political affiliation or beliefs; mental or psychological problems; sexual behavior, orientation, or attitudes; illegal or self-incriminating behavior; "critical appraisals" of family members; "privileged" relationships, such as with attorneys, doctors, or clergy; religious practices; or income.

School staff would not be allowed to answer certain types of survey questions about individual students, and school boards would have to give parents "detailed information related to the survey, including the person who created the survey, the person who sponsors the survey, how information generated by the survey is used, and how information generated by the survey is stored."

Democratic State Representative Heather Matson zeroed in on this provision during House committee discussion and floor debate. As a parent, it's easy to overlook some email or written correspondence from the school, she noted. Requiring parents to sign a consent form means that whether by intention or accident, many students will end up not completing the survey. That will make the data less valuable to school districts and public health agencies. Iowa results won't be comparable to other states or nationally.

Matson also pointed out that some grants have requirements to base intervention on data. She expressed concern that this provision of the bill could disqualify Iowa from receiving some funding.

The House Republican amendment preserved this language. Asked why he voted against Senate File 496, Lohse told Bleeding Heartland in an April 4 email that he had voted for many of the bill's provisions already. He said the "primary reason" he opposed the larger bill was this section relating to students' rights and surveys. It "gave me too much heartburn," Lohse added. "The number of unintended consequences that I believe may result were simply too much to overcome the many good parts in the bill."

On a related note, the Reynolds administration ended a three-decade-long tradition by deciding not to participate in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2023 Youth Risk Behavior survey, Natalie Krebs reported for Iowa Public Radio on March 22. Common Good Iowa executive director Anne Discher observed that the CDC survey asks about gender identity.

“It's really the only one that allows us to see the specific needs of trans kids,” she said. “So we're doing away with the opportunity to really have fine grade data around health and mental health that includes trans kids.”

This question is important following the passage of several new Iowa laws that affect transgender kids, Discher said.

“What it looks like to me is we are going to make life harder for trans kids,” she said. “And then conveniently, we're not going to gather any data that would prove that actually the things we do make their lives worse.”


Reynolds' bill would have required school districts to publish all of the following information online, updated at least twice a semester or before each trimester:

  • "A list of all materials that will be used to teach students in each class in the school district, sortable by subject area, grade level, and teacher";
    • A comprehensive list of all people "in direct contact" with students who contract with or receive money from the school district;
      • A comprehensive list of all books available in classrooms and libraries;
        • A "detailed explanation" of policies and procedures for parents or guardians to request the removal of educational material used in classrooms or libraries;
          • A "detailed explanation" of procedures for parents to request a review of the school board's decisions.

Nonpartisan analysis of a similar proposal last year estimated that it would cost $27 million a year for Iowa school districts to comply with the requirements to put all classroom materials online.

The Senate amendment kept much of the governor's concept. Schools would be required to publish online a list of people who have "direct contact" with students, as it relates to activities or instruction. (Rozenboom explained that maintenance workers would be exempt.)

School districts would also have to publish "detailed information" about how to request the removal of classroom or library materials. That information would need to be "prominently displayed" on the website.

Districts would be required to publish "detailed information" about the process for requesting a review of a school board decision.

In lieu of a published list of all classroom and library materials, the Senate bill would require school districts to adopt policies allowing parents or guardians to review instructional matter and school library books, and request that their student not be exposed to them. Again, such information would need to be "prominently displayed" on a website.

Districts would need to send parents and guardians a link to an online catalog of school library books.

The House amendment altered this section of the bill in several ways. It removed the requirement to publish a list of those who have "direct contact" with students.

House Republicans kept language requiring "detailed information" to be "prominently displayed" on school websites about how to request the removal of classroom or library materials. Detailed information about requesting a review of a school board decision would also need to be online.

Any resident of a school district (not just parents or guardians) would be empowered to review instructional materials. Districts would need to "prominently" display online information about how parents or guardians can ask that certain materials not be provided to their student. Districts would also need to provide a "written or electronic copy" of that policy to parents or guardians at least once a year.

A comprehensive list of all books available in school libraries would need to be published online.

The House amendment would also prohibit school districts from allowing a student to serve on any committee that considers whether controversial material should be removed from a library.

Ironically, this "transparency" section of the House amendment now includes language that is the antithesis of transparency. The identity of a parent or guardian who asks for some material to be removed from classrooms or school libraries "shall be confidential and shall not be a public record subject to disclosure" under Iowa's open records law.


Reynolds and some other Republicans have asserted that school districts should not be able to keep "secrets" from parents. So the governor's bill would allow parents to access all school records, including teacher evaluations.

More disturbingly, the governor's bill would require school districts to obtain prior written consent from parents or guardians before allowing any staff to use a nickname or pronoun that "does not correspond to the biological sex" listed on the birth certificate.

Districts would need to "immediately" notify a parent or guardian if "any employee of the school district reasonably believes that the minor child has expressed a gender identity that is different than the biological sex listed on the minor child's official birth certificate." This concept was a response to some districts' policies that allowed transgender students to socially transition at school without informing parents.

To pre-empt complaints that this provision would endanger trans kids with unsupportive families, the governor's bill called for school districts to notify the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services if the district determined that notifying the parent or guardian "is likely to lead to a case of child abuse."

Leaving aside the fact that school staff are not trained to ferret out transgender or nonbinary expression, and would not be in a position to guess which parents might lash out at non-conforming children, there is no process for reporting potential future child abuse to the state.

Social conservatives who otherwise supported the bill expressed concern at subcommittee hearings that this language could allow teachers to "discriminate" against Christian parents by reporting them to human services.

Senate Republicans kept most of the governor's language, removing the reference to "nicknames" but requiring written consent before staff could use names or pronouns that are different from what's listed on school district registration records.

The House amendment substantially changed this language but not its intent to force kids out before they may be ready to confide in their parents. The section on "parental rights in education" now states that districts "shall not knowingly give false or misleading information" to parents or guardians regarding a student's gender identity or desire to transition.

If students ask a "licensed practitioner"—that is, an educator, not staff uninvolved in instruction—for an accommodation, such as using a name or pronouns that differ from what's listed on school registration records, the licensed practitioner must report that to an administrator. The administrator would then inform the parent or guardian about the request.

The governor's bill envisioned civil penalties including fines of up to $5,000 against school districts that violate these provisions. Under the Senate version, superintendents or school employees who knowingly violate the provisions would be subject to discipline by the state Board of Educational Examiners. The House amendment does not specify penalties for violating rules related to a student's gender identity.


The governor's bill would allow parents to homeschool kids needing special education without approval from school district staff or the local Area Education Agency. Parents would also be able to request dual enrollment for children needing special education, so those students could receive some instruction at school and learn other subjects at home.

Both Senate and House Republicans kept those provisions in the bill.


As Bleeding Heartland discussed here in more detail, the governor's bill proposed a new Iowa Code section on parents' rights.

A parent or guardian bears the ultimate responsibility, and has the constitutionally protected right, to make decisions affecting the parent's or guardian's minor child, including decisions related to the minor child's medical care, moral upbringing, religious upbringing, residence, education, and extracurricular activities.

Senate Republicans expanded that paragraph, to highlight that this constitutional right is "fundamental," and that "Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny." But they also carved out an exception for Senate File 538, which bans gender-affirming care for Iowans under age 18, regardless of a parent's wishes.

House Republicans kept the Senate's language. I believe it will only help plaintiffs demonstrate in future litigation that banning gender-affirming care for Iowa children is unconstitutional.


The last two lines of the governor's bill state that Iowa Code Section 25B.2, subsection 3 "shall not apply to this act." That part of the code deals with "unfunded state mandates." It allows government entities not to perform any new activity or service that the legislature requires without appropriating "moneys to fully fund the cost of the state mandate."

Senate and House Republicans left that part of the governor's proposal unchanged. So school districts will be on the hook for all of the new requirements, no matter how much it costs to implement them.


The House amendment included language from a half-dozen other bills the chamber approved earlier in the session. The Iowa Association of School Boards published a handy summary here. Some of the bills are alive; they either received Senate Education Committee approval before the March 31 "funnel" deadline or were placed on the "unfinished business" calendar. Others did not advance in the upper chamber.

House File 430 deals with mandatory reporting requirements for educators, discipline procedures, and the membership of the Board of Educational Examiners, which licenses and disciplines educators. Under current law, all twelve members of that board have a professional connection to education, with a range of specialties represented.

The House Republican proposal would change the body to eleven members: five parents or guardians of students enrolled in a public, private, or charter school; five "licensed practitioners," including one administrator and one special education teacher; and one school board member. (During the April 4 debate, Cahill likened this idea to having a plumbing board with five plumbers, one owner of a plumbing store, and five people who have flushed a toilet.)

House File 255 relaxes teacher licensing requirements. People with a bachelor's degree could become licensed to teach subjects they hadn't studied. Others could obtain a teaching certification through an online program, with no required time in the classroom. Republicans say the bill is needed to address a teacher shortage. Representatives of education organizations and some House Democrats have expressed many concerns about the bill; Bleeding Heartland author Bruce Lear articulated those here.

Three bills that received overwhelming bipartisan approval in the House are also included in the amendment to the governor's bill. House File 253 would allow students enrolled at charter schools to participate in the local school district's extracurricular activities, if the charter school does not offer that activity. House File 608 would require schools to train staff on handling seizures. House File 429 would allow parents to enroll a child at another school within the same district, to escape harassment or bullying at the home school.

Finally, two parts of House File 370 were added to the larger education bill. The House amendment clarifies that school board members have access to curriculum and library materials, and may observe classroom instruction. It also establishes a new work group within the state Department of Education to evaluate "health care-related training for school personnel."

Top image: State Representative Skyler Wheeler presents an amendment to a wide-ranging education bill on April 4. Screenshot from official legislative video.

  • Private schools

    These rules, regs, parental “empowerments,” penalties etc. should be the standards required of private schools. I assume they’re the standards that reflect the school or institution a rightwing parent is seeking for her kids, which (assumedly) are the standards already existing in those privates the governor so revers and idealizes and wants available to all kids. The package constitute a crushing blow to public schools that will have to close. I have said elsewhere that every local school should declare itself “private” and not subject to this terror.

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