There were more than 50 education bills introduced during this year’s Iowa legislative session, including proposals to place surveillance cameras in public school classrooms, ban books, jail teachers, and take funding away from public schools to support private institutions.
Republican lawmakers, who have introduced the bulk of these policies, have done so under the guises of “transparency” and “parental choice” to prohibit teachers from enacting a “sinister agenda,” as Senate President Jake Chapman phrased it on the opening day of the legislative session. Gov. Kim Reynolds has devoted much of her attention and agenda on school-related bills in recent months.
The rhetoric and policies have weighed heavily on Iowa educators this year.
“The attacks on teachers and discussions of jail time and cameras is absolute insanity. Teachers are being singled out and disrespected. We are simply trying our best to care for kids and help them learn,” said Salley Wieland, a Des Moines special education teacher.
“We are educated professionals who have the ability to put our skills to use outside the classroom; many teachers have said they are leaving. I will not be returning.”
Reynolds was given a Republican star-making moment on Tuesday when she delivered the GOP’s response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. She used part of the opportunity to defend a lot of what is happening that has so many teachers feeling burnt out in what the governor classified as a Republican-led pro-parent, pro-family “revolution.”
“Republicans believe that parents matter,” Reynolds said. “It was true before the pandemic and it has never been more important to say, out loud, ‘Parents Matter.’ They have a right to know, and to have a say in what their kids are being taught.”
Weiland noted parents already have the ability to see just about everything their children are learning through various means, including the web-based student information program Canvas in some districts.
Lisa Mellecker, a veteran Iowa City teacher, views a lot of the transparency attacks as a distraction to take away from the fact that Iowa schools aren’t receiving funding that matches the inflation rate.
While Reynolds bashed Biden for inflation during her national speech, last month she signed a bill that gives Iowa public schools a 2.5% increase in supplemental aid, which is five percentage points lower than this year’s inflation rate, according to Bloomberg.
“Their plan is to bog people down with these bills about library materials when there is already a process through every school district for giving parents a voice in what their student reads,” Mellecker said.
“…If you were an involved parent, you would know that you can already check school websites, you can check in with your kid’s school librarian and you can see what’s in the library, but they are doing these things and then putting a penalty of jail time or a fine on top of them. That is ludicrous.”
The bills introduced this year even have one University of Northern Iowa senior reconsidering going into teaching. Denison native Rylee Gehlsen is majoring in business teaching because it gave her a best of both worlds situation.
“My father and his brother own a second-generation family business so I’ve been surrounded with business my whole life. When I found out I could combine two things that I love, that’s what drew me to my major,” Gehlsen said.
“I want to be able to pass down my personal life experiences to my students who may be experiencing or will experience the same things as me. I have been extremely lucky to grow up the way I did and receive the education I have and I want to pay it forward by prepping kids for their futures.”
Although teaching has been a long-term ambition of hers and seemed like a straightforward path after graduation, Gehlsen isn’t so certain about her future now.
“What is being discussed right now is so scary,” she said. “I’m a college senior about to enter the education field as a teacher and I’m scared. More and more every day I think that maybe I shouldn’t teach after all because things are getting worse and worse each day. It’s extremely demoralizing.”
Another bill that drew blowback from teachers and administrators was House Study Bill 706, a curriculum review bill which would not apply to private or charter schools.
According to the bill, educators would need to provide all their textbooks, books, articles, syllabi, website links, outlines, handouts, presentations, videos, and other educational materials for documentation, review, and approval twice a year. Anything used in student instruction would need to be published on the school district’s website by Aug. 23 and again by Jan. 15.
That standard would apply to each class in the school district and materials have to be sorted by subject area, grade level, and teacher. Also, the publishing dates fall around the start of the school year and the end of winter break, so teachers would have to create lesson plans months ahead of time for each class they teach.
Peter Lyon lives in Oelwein and teaches ninth- and 10th-grade history at Iowa Virtual Academy. Creating unique PowerPoint slides is a big part of his job. As of Feb. 17, he created 1,258 US history slides, 1,252 world history slides, and 106 civics slides.
Lyon started working for Iowa Virtual Academy in mid-July and his daughter was born on July 20.
“If this bill had been around at the time, I would have had to choose between spending a month making 4,000 PowerPoint slides or taking care of my newborn daughter,” Lyon said. “I have lived in Iowa since I was three. I love this state. My wife is also a teacher.
“But if this bill were to pass, we would probably go raise our daughter somewhere else. They won’t be able to fill our empty slots, because no one will want to take up a new job where you have to put a year’s worth of work into it before you even begin.”
Andrew Rasmussen, a Des Moines eighth-grade social studies teacher, said he tries to find materials that fit the needs and interests of the students in front of him, which requires room for adjustment.
“Only being able to teach from some state-approved list of materials including the handouts—which I often write a week before they are used—would make this job undoable,” he said. “The idea that we have the time to or interest in creating some kind of sinister materials is ludicrous.”
Rasmussen said if House Study Bill 706 or similar bills were implemented, he would move on from his 27-year career as an educator.
“This will just make our jobs harder and again makes us feel like we are already found guilty of some thought crime just because we are public school teachers,” he said. “I will definitely seek early retirement and start thinking of taking my children to another state for their education if this kind of legislation passes.”
Brock Lehman, a Sioux Center history and social studies teacher, said he doesn’t think enough of his colleagues in Sioux County—a Republican stronghold—realize the harm this legislative session is doing to their profession.
“That’s very dangerous when we elect people who are doing their best to vilify us behind our back,” he said. “Of course, publicly they say they support educators, but at the same time, they continue to support vouchers, school cameras, and removing anything from the curriculum that is offensive.
“In their defense, they probably read it on Facebook that someone, somewhere in a country of over 340 million [people] did something, so we have to fight it here in Iowa whether it’s real or not.”
Lehman said the continued push by states to ban teaching certain historical events makes his job more difficult. Last year, Iowa passed a divisive concepts law, which outlawed the non-existent threat of critical race theory being taught in public schools.
“At what point will I have a parent demanding I be fired because what I teach isn’t the same thing they learned in elementary school?” Lehman asked. “Even though what I teach is the unpolished truth? Does that make me evil or just honest?
“All of these bills vilify not just teachers but public schools in general. Everything that is written implies a devious method behind what we do—like we work for some evil communist cabal trying to brainwash American youth into hating America,” he continued. “Even the voucher bill makes private schools exempt from state mandates so they can go on doing their thing while we have more oversight placed on us.”
While some are considering an exit, Lehman isn’t quite ready to take that step yet.
“I don’t know about leaving the profession,” he said. “I’ve always stood for my students and my school district—I’m pretty loyal that way—but everyone has their limit.”
Mellecker, the Iowa City teacher who also mentors younger educators, said she feels blessed to be in Iowa City. She feels like she has a layer of community support, a good superintendent, and a strong union; however, she noted her situation isn’t the norm.
“It’s an insane time to be an educator right now,” Mellecker said.
Mellecker and her husband moved back to Iowa in 2020 for their family. He grew up in the Sioux City area and she grew up in Johnson County, and her family’s farm traces back to the 1800s.
“I’m lucky enough to feel supported in Iowa City, but there’s only so much that a city can do when our local governance is constantly questioned and overruled by Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Legislature.”
Mellecker said her family isn’t going anywhere but ponders if the political climate will deter others from moving to Iowa.
“I don’t understand how we can underfund our public schools,” she said. “If the economy is the number one focus of the GOP, [then] the economy will suffer because people will not want to move here and want to start businesses and won’t want to move their families here.”
“So, I mean, I think there’s a snowball effect to a lot of this legislation that isn’t being considered.”
Iowa Starting Line is part of an independent news network and focuses on how state and national decisions impact Iowans’ daily lives. We rely on your financial support to keep our stories free for all to read. You can contribute to us here. Also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.