State’s largest vouchers, book ban backers endorse in Johnston School Board race

Bob Vander Plaats (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

By Ty Rushing

October 17, 2023

One of the most powerful social conservative lobbying groups in Iowa is getting involved in school board races, and the Johnston School District has emerged as one of its top targets.

The Family Leader recently announced it endorsed conservative Johnston School Board candidates Josh Nelson, Lori Stiles, Charles Steele, and Michelle Veach. The organization plans to send out more than 1,700 mailers to Johnston voters in support of the candidates.

“These candidates are all professing Christians who are running to firmly establish a tradition of strong values and academic excellence,” a Family Leader press release states.

Nationally, the Family Leader is best known for hosting Republican presidential candidates and its successful effort to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices in 2010 after the justices were part of a ruling that legalized gay marriage in the state.

Lately, they’ve been one of the lead organizations pushing for more book bans in the state.

That comes from its status as one of the more prolific lobbying groups at the Iowa Statehouse.

The Urbandale-based nonprofit employs five lobbyists in the Iowa Capitol and seven under its Family Leader Foundation offshoot, although it should be noted five of the seven lobby for both organizations. There is also at least one disclosed state representative on the Family Leader’s payroll.

The Family Leader has long lobbied for the use of taxpayer funds for private school tuition, but what other education-related policies has it advocated for recently?

Here are six bills the Family Leader lobbied for and that candidates it endorses may also support:

SF 496

This was a massive education bill championed by Gov. Kim Reynolds and other Republicans that instituted a multitude of changes to Iowa’s public education system, including book bans, removing explicit instruction on HIV/AIDS, banning discussion of gender identity in K-6, and forcing teachers to out students to their parents.

HF 68 (vouchers)

On the 12th day of the 2023 Iowa Legislative session, Iowa Republicans in both chambers passed a voucher bill that will reallocate $144 million in taxpayer funds to private school tuition this school year alone, $37 million more than the original estimate.

This bill was championed by Reynolds and has an unlimited line item in the state budget. Reynolds and other Iowa Republicans championed this bill as a great equalizer to help all Iowa families afford private schools, but not much has been said about all those schools promptly raising tuition after the fact.

While it may seem odd and unlikely for a public school board member to back private school vouchers, two of the conservative school board members elected as a team two years ago voted against a Johnston School Board resolution opposing them, while the third abstained.

HSB 112

Iowa outlawed the non-existent teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools in 2021, but some Iowa Republicans felt that wasn’t enough. House Study Bill 111 would have added civil penalties to teachers who were accused of teaching kindergartners a more than 40-year-old legal theory.

SF 85

While this bill did not become law, it would have removed social-emotional learning from Iowa’s public schools and it was heavily endorsed by the Family Leader.

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is the way people develop life skills that are applicable inside and outside the classroom. These are skills such as effective communication, practicing curiosity, staying motivated, and making decisions that benefit you and other people.

HF 616

This was a bill to stop Iowa’s regent universities from funding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices and staff. During a March 1 public hearing on the bill, Family Leader Lobbyist Chuck Hurley said defunding DEI was something America’s most famous civil rights leader would support.

“Dr. Martin Luther King said it much more eloquently than I will, but I believe that the Iowa ethos should be judged on the content of our character, not the color of our skin, etcetera, etcetera,” Hurley said.

According to the University of Iowa, the purpose of DEI on campus is to “maintain a civil campus culture by practicing and teaching respect for every person and issue. This includes all students, faculty, and staff, no matter their visible or invisible disability, race, ethnicity, veteran status, sexual orientation, or religion.”


by Ty Rushing

If you enjoy stories like these, make sure to sign up for Iowa Starting Line’s main newsletter.

To contact Senior Editor Ty Rushing for tips or story ideas, email him at [email protected] or find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

​​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.


  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.



Local News

Related Stories
Share This