How two more GOP bills will change public education in Iowa

Reshaping K-12 education has been a major theme of the Iowa legislature’s 2023 session. In January, Republican majorities quickly approved Governor Kim Reynolds’ plan to divert hundreds of millions of public dollars to private schools. In March, the House and Senate passed a “bathroom bill” prohibiting transgender people from using school facilities that align with their gender identity.

Last week, House and Senate Republicans finished work on another two major education bills. Senate File 496 will impose many new restrictions on public schools, while Senate File 391 will lower standards for teachers and librarians and relax several high school curriculum requirements.

The Senate approved both bills on straight party-line votes. Four House Republicans (Michael Bergan, Chad Ingels, Megan Jones, and Hans Wilz) joined Democrats to vote against Senate File 496. Ingels and all Democrats present opposed Senate File 391.

Reynolds is certain to sign both bills and claim victory for her stated goals of empowering parents and giving school districts more flexibility. This post will explain how key provisions changed before final passage, and which parts of each bill didn’t make the cut.


Senate File 496 grew out of a bill the governor’s office introduced in February. Almost every policy Reynolds proposed made it through both chambers in some form, with one exception: the legislation no longer would require a civics exam for high school students, based on the U.S. citizenship test.

Republicans have referred to this bill as a “parents’ rights” or “parental empowerment” measure. State Representative Skyler Wheeler, who floor managed the bill in the House, summarized the case during his closing comments on April 20: “it is wrong for schools to keep secrets from parents about their kids. It is wrong to push political agendas in the classroom. And it is wrong to put pornography in front of children.”

However, many Democratic lawmakers countered that Senate File 496 mainly reflects the views of politically and socially conservative parents. Parents who want school libraries to maintain diverse catalogs, or who want their children to receive evidence-based instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity will be out of luck.

Also worth noting: many of the bill’s new requirements do not apply to Iowa’s private schools—presumably because Republicans are not worried about library books or classroom materials that educate students from a Christian or Catholic perspective.

Bleeding Heartland previously covered how lawmakers altered various parts of the bill during its first run through the Senate and House. Here’s what changed with the amendment the Senate approved on April 19. The House concurred the next day.

Restrictions on school library books

Senate File 496 requires school libraries to stock only “age-appropriate” material, stipulating that age-appropriate “does not include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act” as defined in another code section.

In order to avoid banning works of classic literature, House Republicans had changed this language to prohibit material containing “graphic descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.” The Senate took out the word “graphic,” which guarantees many more books now widely available in libraries will be swept up.

When the Senate debated this bill in March, Democratic State Senator Herman Quirmbach pointed out that some passages of the Bible refer to gang rape or other sex acts. The amendment now clarifies that each school district’s K-12 library program must be “consistent with section 280.6 and with the educational standards established in this section […].” Iowa Code section 280.6 states, “Religious books such as the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran shall not be excluded from any public school or institution in the state, nor shall any child be required to read such religious books contrary to the wishes of the child’s parent or guardian.”

Quirmbach speculated on April 19 that carving out an exception for religious books could be considered a First Amendment violation and discrimination against non-religious people. In effect, the bill says a public school, financed by tax dollars, “has to choose books that are religious, but exclude books that are not religious,” even if the sexual content is comparable.

The Senate amendment added some penalties for violating these provisions. School libraries will have until January 1, 2024 to get all material that’s not “age-appropriate” off the shelves. After that date, school districts or employees will be subject to discipline for violations of this provision. A repeat violation could lead to an educator’s license being revoked.

During the Iowa House debate on April 20, Democratic State Representative Heather Matson expressed particular concern about this section.

School libraries have thousands of books. When do you expect our teacher librarians to read literally every book in a school library to make sure every page meets these new guidelines related to “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act”?

Will they be required to do this under contract hours, or will this just be free labor?

Matson asserted that the goal of the vague and subjective language in this part of the bill “is to create confusion and fear among our dedicated school employees,” so they will remove any book that might stir up controversy.

Democratic State Senator Sarah Trone Garriott, who is an ordained Christian pastor, commented during last week’s debate that she knows a teacher who has removed every book from her classroom. This educator is afraid to be punished if some book has a passage she didn’t notice, which might run afoul of this section.

Trone Garriott also took note of the exemption carved out for the Bible, saying it illustrates how books can have value, even if isolated passages may seem sexually explicit or inappropriate for children.

I think that really underscores the point that it is wrong to remove other books, just because someone’s determined them not age-appropriate, or that there is some sexuality noted in it. I mean, that’s part of life, and learning how to live life together, and how to be a healthy person. Those are topics that are part of our world, and we do need to be learning about as part of a supportive and healthy community, with teachers, with supportive adults.

Don’t say gay/trans

Republicans left intact a section that changes the human growth and development curriculum as follows: “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.”

Several Democrats pointed out that this restriction would harm LGBTQ kids or those with LGBTQ families. Quirmbach warned that it’s likely unconstitutional for the state to discriminate by banning schools from offering curriculum that meets the needs of all students. Iowa law has long allowed parents to opt their own children out of sex ed classes; now the state is making that decision for everyone’s children. Trone Garriott said she feels several aspects of the bill will hold her school-age children back.

Iowa Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls argued that under these provisions, an elementary school teacher in a same-sex relationship wouldn’t be able to keep a picture of their partner on their desk, or answer student questions about their families.

Forced outing of transgender students

Under Senate File 496, school staff would be barred from affirming a student’s gender identity and using preferred pronouns that aren’t consistent with what’s on school registration forms, unless the teacher has written approval from the student’s parents. Staff would also be required to inform an administrator about any student request for an accommodation based on gender identity, such as using a different name or pronouns. The administrator “shall report the student’s request” to a parent or guardian.

House Republicans had removed language that made superintendents or school employees subject to discipline if they violated provisions related to a student’s gender identity. But the Senate amendment put punishment back in, including a hearing before the state Board of Educational Examiners for superintendents or teachers after repeat violations.

The original bill created an exception if school staff felt informing the parents could put the student in danger. But the final version has no such language. Quirmbach argued that the state may have liability if a student is abused after school staff inform parents that the student may be transgender.

State Senator Brad Zaun—the only Republican to speak during the Senate debate, aside from the floor manager, Ken Rozenboom—denied that the bill is “attacking kids.” He said the intention was to protect kids, and let parents be parents.

Quirmbach rose a second time to rebut that point. Outing possibly transgender children to their families, even if the parents may be violent, is not keeping children safe. Denying LGBTQ kids instruction on human growth and development puts them at risk of not growing up in a well-adjusted way.

Over the course of this whole session, this bill and a flock of other bills, the message to LGBT kids is very clear: we don’t want you here. We want you to go back in the closet. And that only means that there will be more of these children that commit suicide.

Democratic State Senator Claire Celsi read out a message she had received from a constituent who works with LGBTQ youth. She warned that Iowa’s new law banning gender-affirming care for minors had already led to two completed suicides and other suicide attempts. The social worker said school can be a beacon of hope for youth who may not have supportive families, and this bill would make school unsafe by forcing adults to out students to their families.

Democratic State Senator Janet Petersen spoke more broadly about the potential harm to all children if nurses, counselors, therapists, social workers, or child psychologists decide they can’t work in Iowa schools anymore. Outing transgender students would go against ethical standards for all of those professions. But adhering to those standards would put staff at risk of losing their educators’ license in Iowa.

Matson, Wahls, and other Democrats warned that Senate File 496 will worsen Iowa’s teacher shortage.

No mandatory instruction on HIV or HPV

As Reynolds requested, Senate File 496 removes language from Iowa Code that requires human growth and development lessons for junior high and high school students to include some instruction about AIDS, the human papillomavirus (HPV), and the vaccine that prevents HPV. Public health advocates and medical associations had joined many education groups in opposing this idea, because the HPV vaccine can prevent several kinds of cancer.

During the Iowa House debate, Matson reminded colleagues that “when something is not required, it is often left out because of so many competing interests.” So while the bill does not forbid schools from teaching about HIV or HPV, its passage will prompt some schools to stop providing the information.

Democratic State Representative Sue Cahill argued that the legislation “shows the hypocrisy of the majority party: protect kids on one side, by not talking about gender identity or sexual orientation until they’re in seventh grade, but put them in jeopardy of a lethal cancer” by not requiring instruction on HIV/AIDS or the HPV vaccine.

Most health surveys to be opt-in

In an apparent effort to target the Iowa Youth Survey, the bill retains language proposed by the governor and expanded by the Senate last month. It would require parental consent before schools administer “any survey, analysis, activity, or evaluation” not required by state or federal law, which 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.

Regarding surveys or exams that are required by state or federal law (aside from hearing or vision exams), the Senate amendment requires school districts to notify parents or guardians at least seven days in advance. The district must provide a link where a parent can review the content of the survey.

Democratic State Representative Molly Buck, who is a teacher, spotted a disturbing addition to this part of the Senate amendment. The requirement to notify parents at least seven days in advance before conducting a survey or exam “shall not be construed to prohibit a school district from conducting health screenings or invasive physical examinations in emergent care situations or from cooperating in a child abuse assessment […].” The words in bold would be added to the code section.

Buck said she couldn’t imagine why a school staff member would ever need to conduct an invasive physical examination of a student.

Why would we put these words in code? “Invasive physical examination.” School districts have been able to take care of emergent health care needs and situations for years, without issue. What has changed now where schools would need to conduct an invasive physical examination, especially without parental consent?

She expressed concern that someone might try to check a student’s genitalia to make sure it conformed to their gender presentation.

In his closing comments, the House floor manager Wheeler objected to that characterization and said he was “disappointed” in Buck. He said the section was “self-explanatory” and referred only to “emergent care situations” or when school staff were cooperating with a child abuse assessment.

School “transparency”

The final text of Senate File 496 includes the House version of so-called “transparency” measures. School districts would need to post “detailed information,” “prominently displayed” on websites, about how to request the removal of classroom or library materials, or how to ask for a review of a school board decision. The list of books available in school libraries would also need to be published online.

The bill retains House language that would prohibit students from serving on any school district’s committee that considers whether challenged material should be removed from a library. It also stipulates that the identity of those who ask for material to be moved must remain confidential and is not subject to disclosure under Iowa’s open records law.

Any resident of a school district (not just parents or guardians of enrolled students) 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, and provide a copy of that policy to parents or guardians at least once a year.

The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency estimated it would cost school districts millions of dollars, perhaps tens of millions of dollars, to implement the transparency measures. The state won’t allocate funding for that purpose, and another section of Senate File 496 exempts the bill from the part of Iowa Code dealing with “unfunded state mandates.” That is to say, school districts must comply with all of the new requirements, no matter how much it costs to do so.

“Parents’ rights”

Senate File 496 spells out the “fundamental, constitutionally protected right” of parents and guardians to make decisions for their own children. As Bleeding Heartland previously discussed, Republicans wrote a carve-out for Senate File 538, the bill banning gender-affirming care for Iowans under age 18.

Subject to section 147.164, as enacted by 2023 Iowa Acts, Senate File 538, a parent or guardian bears the ultimate responsibility, and has the fundamental, 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. Any and all restrictions of this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.

“Strict scrutiny” is the highest bar for the government to clear if a law or policy is challenged in court. The state would need to demonstrate that it has a compelling interest to justify limiting parents’ ability to make medical decisions for transgender or nonbinary children. The state would also need to show the ban on gender-affirming care was “narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” That would be a tall order.

A few extras

The Senate amendment kept some language House Republicans had added to incorporate other education-related bills into Senate File 496. For instance, it creates a process for parents to enroll their child at another school within the same school district, to escape harassment or bullying at the home school.

But many other provisions House Republicans tried to tack onto Senate File 496 are absent from the version that will reach the governor’s desk. One section would have replaced several professionals on the state Board of Educational Examiners with parents who had no education background. Another would have created an alternative path for teacher licensure, without any mandatory student teaching. Another would have clarified that school board members have access to curriculum and library materials, and may observe classroom instruction.

For the most part, Democrats welcomed the removal of those sections. However, a few parts of the bill that didn’t make it into the Senate amendment had bipartisan support, such as language allowing students enrolled at charter schools to participate in the local school district’s extracurricular activities, and a requirement to train school staff to handle seizures.


Senate File 391 was another bill that bounced back and forth between the chambers. The main goal remained the same: give school districts more leeway in terms of staff hires and curriculum offerings.

A larger pool of potential teachers and librarians

Under this bill, community college teachers could be hired to teach certain subjects in K-12 schools. It would remove current code language requiring school districts to make “every reasonable and good faith effort to employ a teacher licensed” to teach that subject.

Current law requires teacher librarians to be licensed by the Board of Educational Examiners. Senate File 391 would allow schools to hire unlicensed librarians who have been previously employed in a public library.

Democratic State Senator Molly Donahue, who is a teacher, emphasized during the April 17 debate that this bill “is still lowering the standards and requirements and expertise of school librarians,” while the legislature is asking them in another bill to review every book and material in the school for “age-appropriate” materials. “So we’re asking a lot more of them when they have a lot less qualifications.”

“We love our public librarians,” Donahue continued, but they serve different communities and have different jobs. They are not required to have a bachelor’s degree.

Fewer required course offerings in high school

Quirmbach characterized Senate File 491 as “a significant dumbing down of the K-12 education that we are offering to the students of Iowa.”

The bill would allow high schools to offer just two years of a foreign language, instead of four, as Senate Republicans intended when they first approved the bill in March. A House version passed last month bumped that up to three years of foreign languages. But Senate negotiators insisted on the original proposal, so the final version calls for two years. Several Democrats argued that this will leave students less prepared to work in a global economy, or pursue certain kinds of careers.

The Republican floor manager, State Senator Tim Kraayenbrink, emphasized that in rural school districts, it can be hard to find teachers able to teach four years of a foreign language. Qualified teachers often choose to work in larger districts, where salaries are higher.

Fine arts offerings would also be reduced. As Cahill explained during the House debate, current law requires schools to provide three types of fine arts. This bill cuts that to two, meaning that a school could offer vocal and instrumental music programs, and completely leave out visual arts, theater, and dance. Quirmbach argued that this provision will undermine students who hope to work in fields like publishing, advertising, and media.

Both the House and Senate versions removed a code section requiring high schools to offer a course on financial literacy. The concept is that relevant material would be integrated into other classes. Kraayenbrink, who is a financial adviser, said he was confident educators will be able to teach this information in an “innovative way.”

Donahue warned that K-12 students “do not generalize little bits from each different class and put it all together.” Quirmbach observed that lawmakers worry about college students accumulating debt, yet “dumb down the requirements” by eliminating “coherent instruction in financial literacy.”

The bill also eliminates a requirement for schools to teach technology literacy. “Who doesn’t need that?” Quirmbach wondered.

Fewer requirements = fewer offerings

Several Democrats connected Senate File 391 to years of state funding increases for K-12 schools that failed to keep up with rising costs. “This bill is a do-less bill,” Donahue said. For years, the legislature has underfunded schools, and now the solution is “to lower the standards to match inadequate funding.”

Quirmbach said Republicans may say they are only reducing what’s required. Schools could continue to offer more foreign languages or fine arts. But “the predictable end product of the failure to fund public education” is that school administrators need to keep cutting staff or programs to balance their budgets, he said. When you tell them teaching some subject is no longer required, they will cut it.

Kraayenbrink rejected that view. He said Republicans don’t sit around trying to dream up ways to make the education system worse. “These ideas came from administrators” in rural school districts, who often lack the resources available to districts in larger urban areas.

Less online instruction

Oddly, for a bill that purports to give school districts more flexibility, Senate File 491 prohibits schools from offering more than five days or 30 hours of instruction “delivered primarily over the internet.” Cahill noted that if a student needs to learn online for more than five days, schools will be unable to address that need.

CPR training for high school students

The original Senate bill did not include CPR and would have allowed students participating in school sports to avoid PE classes across the state, instead of leaving such policies to be determined locally by school boards.

When House members passed this bill in March, they restored language requiring CPR training for high school students and removed changes to physical education requirements.

Before passing the bill a second time on April 17, Senate Republicans kept the CPR language and left the PE changes out.

Shortly before last week’s House vote on final passage, Cahill asserted that the majority party had achieved its “goal of undermining public education.” She added that she was glad the bill preserved CPR as a graduation requirement, “so that when someone does access a gun in the parking lot, our students will know what to do to help those who are injured.”

House File 654, approved on April 19 and now pending in the Senate, would allow Iowans to keep firearms in locked vehicles in school parking lots. That same bill would encourage (but not require) public schools to implement age-appropriate gun safety instruction from grades K-12, based on a curriculum developed by the National Rifle Association.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • Wow

    What a grab bag of insults to the integrity of public education. Thanks for the details.

  • Where is Iowa that put a school on its quarter?

    I’m shocked at all of these bad laws. Public schools are going to be in such trouble. There won’t be any books in the school library. There is a picture on the internet that one NW Iowa school already has put all the library books in closets. Going forward, there are very few books that would survive an anonymous challenge. I think of fads that went through students I was teaching.

    I remember the “Flowers in the Attic” series from 80s. Terrible books to me, but the kids loved them, especially in middle school. The Harry Potter books are going to be challenged on day one. They were when they first came out. How many kids learned to love reading because of those books? I can think of several of my son’s friends who did! The “Twighlight” books were another series. Again, I didn’t like them at all; but the kids did. We never know what will spark kids to read.

    Can anything written by Stephen King be in a high school library?
    How about the classic, “A Day no Pigs would Die?” It might be too religious, and it deals with poverty.

    Nearly everything in the American Lit textbook would be banned. Certainly, everything I taught in my dual credit course. I can’t imagine what parents today would say about “The Great Awakening” or anything by Kate Chopin!

    Bring back Dick and Jane! That’s all that’s going to be legal to teach.

    Of course, this is only the first year of the legislative session. Next year do they come back for the science curriculum?

    How old is the Earth? Do teachers have to fear teaching evolution as a controversial subject?

    It took less than a generation for the republicans to take Iowa education from the top in the nation to the lower 1/3. Now they are hoping to take them to the bottom. Mississippi, Iowa is racing to the bottom.

    Greg Stevens

    PS Go watch the scene in “The Field of Dreams” where they discuss book bans. Will Iowans fight back?