Seven big changes Iowa parents and students will see when the new school year begins

Katie Akin
Des Moines Register
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Editor's note: Yup, we added a seventh big change from the initial publication of this story. There's a lot of new things going on in Iowa schools this year.

Iowa students and parents will notice significant changes in school classrooms this year after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a tsunami of sweeping education-related laws over the summer break.

Reynolds, a Republican, staked her reelection bid on "parents' rights," rallying the Republican-led Legislature to approve her plan to offer state-funded private school tuition to all Iowa students.

Republican lawmakers then turned their attention to removing school books they deemed "age-inappropriate" and prohibiting instruction on LGBTQ topics in elementary schools.

Transgender students will likely notice the most significant changes this year, with new laws restricting which bathrooms they can use and requiring parents to be notified if a student requests to use different pronouns.

As part of the "parents' rights" push, lawmakers also passed bills that would:

  • Notify parents sooner when students are violent or threatening;
  • Require parental consent for student surveys;
  • And include more parents on Iowa's teacher licensing board.

"This legislative session, we secured transformational education reform that puts parents in the driver's seat, eliminates burdensome regulations on public schools, provides flexibility to raise teacher salaries and empowers teachers to prepare our kids for their future," Reynolds said in May, as she signed several education bills into law. "Education is the great equalizer and everyone involved — parents, educators, our children — deserves an environment where they can thrive."

Head of Schools at Pella Christian Schools Dan Zylstra, left, and Executive Director of Hispanics Aligned for Choice in Education Reform Arlene McClintock are introduced by Gov. Kim Reynolds before they gave their testimonies at the signing of the House File 68 in the rotunda of the Iowa State Capitol Building on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2023.

As you're preparing for the new school year to begin, here are some of the major changes to expect in Iowa classrooms this year.

These new laws apply for public, private and charter schools.

No books with sex acts in Iowa schools

A new Iowa law prohibits school books with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act, which Iowa law specifically defines as a list of explicit actions between two or more people.

Supporters of the law have pointed to a few, controversial books that they say are inappropriate for minors — such as "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe and "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George Johnson.

A number of books have been challenged in Iowa in recent years including "The Hate U Give," "All Boys Aren't Blue," "Hey, Kiddo," "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," "This Book is Gay," "Gender Queer" and "Melissa."

But Iowa education professionals have warned that the law will apply more broadly, requiring the removal of many more books, including some works of classic literature.

The Urbandale Community School District has a list of 64 books it believes will be prohibited, including classics like "The Color Purple," "Ulysses" and "The Handmaid's Tale."

Norwalk Community School District also has a list of 64 prohibited books, including "What Was Stonewall?" "The Kite Runner" and "My Moms Love Me."

No LGBTQ-related instruction in elementary schools

Iowa teachers may not provide "any program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion or instruction" about gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through sixth grade, under a new law.

The Iowa Department of Education has not issued guidance about whether that will require the removal of books with LGBTQ characters.

Flags waving at LGBTQ+ rally

One Republican lawmaker who led the law's passage said he believes it does prohibit books with gay and transgender characters for those grade levels.

Norwalk's list includes several books about LGBTQ people and communities, including "Who Was Harvey Milk?" a politician and the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California who advocated for gay rights, and "Frequently Asked Questions about Same Sex Marriage."

New reporting requirements for violence, threats in school

If a student threatens or commits violence in school, administrators are now required to notify the parents of the student within 24 hours. The school is also required to notify the parents of any student who was threatened or hurt within the same time frame.

School districts must also adopt policies to discipline students who are violent or make threats of violence. Each district may decide on the specifics of its discipline policy, as long as there are options to remove a student from the classroom or suspend or expel them.

Parents added to the Iowa state board that licenses teachers

The Board of Educational Examiners creates and regulates standards for Iowa teachers. Starting this year, some members of the board will include Iowa parents who have never been teachers.

A new law adds four members to the 13-person board who "have demonstrated an interest in education but have never held a practitioner's license." Two of those members must be parents of enrolled students, and one must be a current or former school board member.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has appointed eight members to the board.

Parental consent for student survey participation

Expect to see more permission slips this year: New laws will require schools to ask for parental consent before students take surveys in school.

Parents will be asked to provide written consent before their child takes any school survey about their mental, emotional or physical health, or any survey that asks about political affiliation, sexual behavior, illegal activities, religion or family income.

New restrictions for transgender students on pronouns, bathrooms

Transgender students in Iowa will notice even more changes than their peers.

Starting this school year, schools must notify parents if a student requests to use new pronouns or a new name that affirms their gender identity.

That law came in response to a controversial policy in the Linn-Mar Community School District that allowed students in seventh grade or higher to request to use new pronouns in school without the knowledge or consent of their parents.

Another law, which went into effect near the end of last school year, prohibits transgender individuals from using school bathrooms that align with their gender identity. Instead, students must use the restroom that matches their birth sex, or their parents may request the student have access to special accommodations, such as a single-user restroom.

An example of a gender-neutral restroom.

Damian Thompson, director of public policy at LGBTQ advocacy group Iowa Safe Schools, said the laws will be harmful to the social, emotional, mental and physical health of transgender students.

"Whether it's censoring the curriculum, banning books, restricting common-sense (bathroom) accommodations we've had in law for almost 20 years and never had a single documented issue in the state of Iowa, these attacks on our students are going to irreparably harm Iowa schools in being known as a safe and inclusive place for everybody to learn," Thompson said.

How many students will switch to private schools at taxpayer expense?

Iowa's public schools face a potential exodus of students as the state's new education savings account program kicks in, helping to pay for private school costs for thousands of kids.

The state has approved 18,627 applications for education savings accounts, which can be used to pay private school expenses like tuition and fees.

More:18,000-plus Iowa students approved for taxpayer-paid private schooling. Polk County leads way.

About 60% of those applications were from families whose students already attend private schools, while 40% of students attended public school last year.

Public school districts will lose the $7,635 per student in state aid for every child who switches from public to private school, although public schools will receive about $1,200 from the state in new money for every student in their district's boundaries who receives an ESA.

Students who have been approved for ESAs won't receive that money from the state until they are accepted to and enrolled in an accredited private school.

The full financial impact of the law on schools won't be known until districts complete their enrollment count this fall.

Stephen Gruber-Miller contributed reporting.

Katie Akin is a politics reporter for the Register. Reach her Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.

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