As I did in my January 19 newsletter, I will again devote an entire newsletter to one topic. Serving as the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, for me the first few weeks on the 2023 session have been focused on K-12 education policy matters. This week I want to clearly frame the issues in the of Parents Rights and School Transparency bill, originally SSB 1145, now renamed as SF 496. Many in the media want to report on this bill as an “attack on teachers,” as “LGBT restrictions” or as “book banning.” In this newsletter I want to focus on the actual content of the bill, not the political rhetoric.
Perhaps the best example of the problem we’re trying to solve can be demonstrated by the public statement of a person now serving as an Iowa public school board member. This school board member recently said this, “The purpose of public education is to not teach kids what the parents want. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client is not the parent but the community”.
Regardless of one’s political affiliation, I believe all Iowans should be shocked at the belief that is conveyed in those words. Really? Public schools should no longer serve the parents of K-12 students? Our children are now to be simply taught what this person believes society needs our children to know? This is the fundamental issue being addressed in SF 496.
This bill contains several measures to promote parental rights in education and school transparency—including restrictions on gender identity and sexual activity instruction for elementary students, civics testing as a graduation requirement, parental consent for surveys and outside presenters, transparency of school records and materials, book removal processes for explicit material, and other parental rights.
Do you believe that elementary school children (K-5 in some schools and K-6 in other schools) should discuss or be given instruction on gender identity or sexual activity? I do not, and most Iowa parents do not. That is not age-appropriate “education” in any elementary school, and this bill explicitly prohibits that curriculum and lesson content in elementary schools.
Do you believe that school personnel such as teachers and counselors should engage in discussions with students about expressing a gender identity different than their biological sex, and keep those discussions hidden from the parents? I do not, and I believe that most Iowan parents do not. The bill requires school districts to notify parents if a student asks to change names or pronouns in order to express a different gender identity.
Do you believe parents of K-12 students should have full awareness of books and materials that are in the classrooms and school libraries? I do, and most Iowa parents agree. This bill simply requires that all school districts publish the following on their website: 1) a list of all materials used to teach students, 2) a list of all people in direct contact with students, 3) a list of all books available to students in the classroom or the library, and 4) an explanation of procedures and policies that describe how to request the removal of a book. The policy also requires the Department of Education to maintain a list of books that have been removed from school libraries around the state.
To be clear, there is a mountain of evidence that many Iowa school libraries contain books that provide sexually explicit and obscene pictures and narratives. Please note the definition of what will be prohibited sexually explicit material in SF 496: “The material depicts, describes, or represents, in a patently offensive way with respect to what is suitable for minor children, a sex act, lewd exhibition of the genitals, masturbation, excretory functions, bestiality, or oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse, actual or simulated, involving humans”. Unfortunately, some K-12 schools in Iowa currently have books that contain that kind of material, and it is not acceptable.
Do you believe that schools should be conducting extensive and subjective surveys about students’ mental, emotional or physical health that are not required by state or federal law, and that these surveys can and should be conducted without informing parents? I do not, and I believe most Iowa parents do not. SF 496 states that any formal survey or examination related to social and emotional learning (SEL) should be provided to parents 7 days in advance, and that they be given the opportunity to give parental consent (opt-in) before such surveys and examinations take place.
Senate File 496 is a good bill. It clearly establishes guardrails most Iowans believe to be reasonable and fair. In fact, this bill just matches up with what most schools are doing now, and what most parents already expect their school to be doing. But we need to rein in those schools that believe that “the purpose of public education is to teach [students] what society needs them to know.” We must put parents back in charge of their children’s education.