Weeks before K-12 classrooms across Iowa officially opened August 23, Mike Beranek—a 30-year veteran teacher from West Des Moines and current president of the Iowa State Education Association—began the school year the same way he’s done since taking the post in 2018: crisscrossing the Hawkeye State listening to teachers about their concerns, their needs and issues they felt needed to be taken care of in the Statehouse that coming winter.
The biggest question before them, it seemed, was how to grapple with the implementation of a so-called Parental Bill of Rights enacted under 2023’s Senate File 496, a new piece of legislation signed by Governor Kim Reynolds earlier this year giving students’ parents significant say in the content their children consume in class, the curriculum they cover, even if they ask to use a different name—a change designed to require teachers to inform students’ parents if they were questioning their gender identity amid a national backlash against the LGBTQ+ community.
The provisions, however, were vaguely worded, with official guidance on how to implement the changes nowhere to be found mere weeks before students were due to return. And just one week into the school year, confusion already abounds.
“There’s a great deal of angst and concern out in the field with our educators and our administrators,” Beranek told Newsweek in an interview. “There has been zero guidance provided by our Department of Education regarding any of this, and it’s up to the districts to interpret the law as it was written. And a good portion of the law is very ambiguous.”
So ambiguous that the law has yielded some Kafkaesque episodes across the state, with teachers unsure of what they can or can’t do in a classroom.
While some districts have been in a holding pattern about how to carry out the law, teachers in some districts have been so fearful of running afoul of the law they’ve asked parents’ permission to call their children by their nicknames or shortened versions of their legal names like “Mike” instead of “Michael” or “Joe” over “Joseph,” citing the letter of the new law.
“Yes, hello, are these the parents of Kimberly Reynolds? We are required to tell you that your child has requested to use the gender neutral nickname of ‘Kim.’” pic.twitter.com/7hoFskjZi7
— Senator Liz Bennett (@LizBennettIowa) August 25, 2023
Some teachers have also been anxious about bringing in their own materials for independent reading in class out of concern they’ll run afoul of new regulations surrounding school reading programs, which are also vaguely defined under the new law. And few, particularly those tasked with working with children at their earliest stages of emotional development, are sure how to navigate it.
Particularly at times when those students might be at their most vulnerable.
“There has been no guidance for any discussion when a child talks to an individual employed by a school district about general thoughts like ‘this is how I’m feeling with my peers, this is what’s happening,’” Beranek said. “And if it has a particular focus on whether a child may be feeling different because of where they are at in their developmental process, that’s where parents are supposed to be notified, because that’s where a particular conversation may fit under the law. There’s no guidance to this. There are potentially many unintended consequences, which are causing a lot of concern for our folks.”
Newsweek has reached out to the Iowa Department of Education via email for comment. But Iowa’s teachers are not unique in their struggles. In red states across the country, educators are currently working to adapt to a new slate of GOP-led laws targeting everything from discussions about students’ gender identity to dialogues about class and race, creating a razor field of bureaucracy that has bred a cautious compliance by educators.
In Florida, home of a template piece of legislation commonly referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar recently told National Public Radio many of his members have been confused over how to comply with newly passed laws restricting conversations on topics like race and the LGBTQ+ community over a lack of detail in the law, fueling frustrations he believes are only accelerating a recent exodus of overworked teachers.
“What we’re hearing from teachers is that they are frustrated with low and unfair pay in Florida, they’re frustrated with these policies and laws that are coming out that are preventing them from teaching,” Spar told NPR’s Michel Martin in an August 17 interview. “Every teacher I talked to says just let me teach. I just want to teach. I want to care about kids and help them grow and learn, and I don’t think I can do that right now.”
And while there currently are no legal consequences of violating Iowa state law, the community response to teachers seen as running afoul of the law can be strict enough to intimidate them not to even risk running aground of the law.
In Wyoming, a librarian in Campbell County was recently terminated by the local library board for refusing to ban books from the library shelves after the objections of locals opposed to any content about the LGBTQ+ community, believing the content was “pornographic.” In Georgia, white parents chased a Black educator out of two consecutive school districts after she was appointed as an administrator of their diversity, equity and inclusion programs—which critics have claimed are discriminatory toward white people and teach students to segregate themselves.
The threat of retribution on top of the daily stresses of a relatively low-paying and labor-intensive job, Beranek said, have caused some to walk away rather than even try to comply.
“There are situations where folks in our state do not believe politics should play a role in education,” he said. “But unfortunately, as we’ve seen in Iowa, in many places across the country, politics are driving pieces of the curriculum that’s being utilized, the conversations that can be had….We are taking away the responsibilities of the individuals who actually went to school to learn how to do this.”
“There is a great feeling of demoralization among our staff here in the state,” he added. “We’re at a time in our history where there seems to be a push to restrict that autonomy and the professional decision-making by those who are hired to do the job.”