Scott County residents, including parents and teachers, say they’re concerned about legislation advancing the Iowa Legislature they worry will erode voting rights, funding for K-12 public schools and social justice.
The League of United Latin American Citizens Council 10 and Metrocom NAACP #4019 sponsored the second of four Scott County legislative forums at LULAC’s facility at 4224 Ricker Hill Road in Davenport.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers representing various parts of Scott County fielded questions about recently passed bills and legislation advanced out of committee that would, among other things, make further changes to Iowa’s election laws, prohibit transgender athletes competing in girls’ sports, increase per-pupil funding for K-12 schools and set up a state-funded scholarship program to help children switch from public to private schools.
Friday marked the first legislative “funnel” deadline, where bills must pass out of committee to remain alive. Bills that don’t reach that point in the legislative process are likely dead for the year. Lawmakers, though, can resurrect proposals in a number of ways throughout the session, and the deadline does not apply to tax-related and spending bills.
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Lawmakers who participated in Saturday’s forum included Iowa Reps. Monica Kurth, D-Davenport, Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, Ross Paustian, R-Walcott, Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, and Iowa Sen. Jim Lykam, D-Davenport.
Lawmakers advanced Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposal to set up a state-funded scholarship program to help children switch from public to private schools. The bill would also require school districts to post curriculum and a list of library materials online for parents to view.
Scott County Democratic lawmakers and forum attendees expressed concern about what the funding of private tuition could mean for the future of public education and funding for Davenport schools, and that the taxpayer-funded tuition assistance does not come with the same degree of oversight as does public education funding.
Bettendorf resident Jane Wheeler, who teaches in the Pleasant Valley school district, asked lawmakers about requirements under a proposed parents bill of rights to guarantee parents’ access to curriculum, information related to teachers and other school workers, and to prohibit requiring any student to engage in any instruction or activity that involves content that is obscene as defined by state law.
Wheeler said she worries requirements of the bill will take time away from working one-on-one with students. She said she learned Friday that five PV high school students had been hospitalized for attempted suicide.
“How can we … make sure we are working together as teachers considered professionals and our legislators considered as professionals in serving these students where they are?” Wheeler said.
Davenport resident Allison Ambrose said she fears teachers are under attack by lawmakers and that Republican proposal will negatively impact teacher morale, recruitment and retention amid a teacher shortage.
“Iowa has always been great with education and I see that slipping,” Ambrose said, adding teachers, administrators and librarians should be trusted to do their jobs. “Teachers are professionals and they have had training and they should be treated like professionals.”
Democratic panelists echoed Ambrose, while Republicans argued the so-called school transparency bills will foster better communication between parents and teachers.
“I’m all for parents being involved in the schools,” Mohr said. “I’m not in favor of the parents telling the schools everything they need to do.”
Mohr, too, said he believes banning books in schools is an overreach, and called out “clownish” lawmakers who introduce “crazy” bills aimed “at playing to some group, and I don’t know who they’re playing to.”
“But that bill, like many of these bills that have been introduced, aren’t going to go anywhere,” Mohr said. “My point to you is we all want to keep teachers. … But don’t jump out a six-story window when you hear that some clown introduced a bill that’s going to throw teachers in prisons for this or that, because I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere.”
A bill from Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, would allow parents to sue districts over books they believe are obscene, as well as specify penalties for teachers and school administrators who distribute obscene materials or “hardcore pornography.”
Mohr, too, noted a proposal to place cameras in K-12 classrooms “is dead” for the rest of the session.
The remarks made for an awkward moment, as Mohr sat next to Mommsen. The DeWitt lawmaker proposed the bill that called for livestreaming K-12 classes to give parents access to watch their children in class, which was pulled from the Iowa House calendar last week.
Mohr, after the forum, said he wasn’t referring specifically to Mommsen or Chapman.
“I just wanted to assure our crowd today that don’t assume every piece of legislation that’s introduced is going to get enacted,” he said.
While the livestreaming K-12 classes proposal didn’t get a formal hearing, Mommsen said his intention was to spark a conversation about increasing parental awareness of what their children are being taught in the classroom.
Sarah Jane Eikleberry, an educator and former coach who works with LGBTQ students, asked about the proposed transgender athlete ban, which she feels is an “attack on women and LGBTQ students.”
Paustian said he believes it’s not fair to allow transgender women and girls to compete in girls’ sports.
“This, to me, is not a transgender issue,” Paustian said. “This is an issue of not allowing boys to play girls’ sports. For 50 years, women and girls fought for the right to have sports in their schools and colleges. And now you want to upset the balance? Boys are stronger and faster than girls. They should not be allowed to play girls’ sports.”
Winckler argued examples of transgender girls dominating high school and college athletics are rare — none have been reported in Iowa — and that policies banning such competition discriminate against transgender children and violate federal law.
“They do have a right to play sports,” she said. “They are not boys. They are trans girls. It is important for equity. … It is a distraction in trying to divide people. It is not necessary. We throw around the term ‘Iowa nice’ when it’s convenient for us. This is not Iowa nice.”
Thede said the bill amounts to state-sanctioned bullying.
“We are trying to institute hate. It is hate we are going to put into law and open the door for other groups to be treated in the same manner,” Thede said.
Lawmakers this week also advanced more changes to voting by mail.
Iowa Sen. Roby Smith, R-Davenport (who did not participate in Saturday’s forum due to a scheduling conflict) and Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, introduced identical bills in the Iowa House and Senate.
The bills, among other provisions, would require voters to sign and place their driver’s license or state-issued voter identification number on the affidavit envelope when returning a ballot by mail. Republican lawmakers recently changed the law to require voters to include that information when requesting absentee ballots.
Winckler argued the identification requirement is an unnecessary hurdle that will only further disenfranchise voters.
“For you to be on the voting rolls, you have been vetted,” Winckler said. “When you turn in your voter registration, there are several databases that are checked to make sure you are who are and you live where you say you live. And once you get your voter identification card … you have been documented, more or less, that you are eligible to vote.”
She pointed to Texas, where thousands of voters’ mail-in ballots for midterm primary elections were recently rejected, almost entirely because voters neglected to include an ID number on the envelope.
The new Republican-backed Texas identification requirements passed in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud.
Winckler said the change could also require local election officials to print more envelopes for absentee ballots, adding cost and taking up more staff time during a shortened early voting window that’s anticipated to increase their workload.
Republicans have used their majorities in the Iowa House and Senate and control of the governor’s office to pass sweeping election legislation in recent years, including a 2017 voter ID law and shortening the amount of time Iowans have to vote early from 40 days to 29 days to 20 days under current law.
Last year’s elections bill also restricted who can return an absentee ballot on behalf of an Iowa voter, limited counties to one location — regardless of its geographic size or population — for dropping off completed early ballots, and prohibited local elections officials from setting up a satellite early voting location absent a petition signed by at least 100 eligible voters to establish a location.
Taken as a whole, Thede said the new restriction unnecessarily jeopardizes vulnerable Iowans — like the elderly, those lacking reliable transportation or individuals with disabilities who live alone and have no relatives nearby — from returning ballots in a timely fashion.
Mohr said “all the hand-wringing over changes in the voting law” is overblown. He argued three weeks of early voting provides sufficient time to cast a ballot and that voters have plenty of options to do so. Iowa voters can mail in or drop off absentee ballots and vote early in person or on election day. He also noted individuals can register and vote on election day.
Mohr, too, said “voting ID is something the populace wants” to provide secure elections free of potential fraud.
Paustian contends Iowa’s new voting laws, “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat. And I wouldn’t have voted for it if I knew it would make it harder” for any group to vote.
Mommsen added “new voting laws have done nothing but increase participation.” Democrats argue higher-than-usual voter turnout does not mean Iowa’s new election law did not create new barriers for voters.
Critical race theory
Lawmaker were also asked their views on the teaching of critical race theory in Iowa schools.
Democrats noted the academic approach was developed in the legal field and largely taught in law schools and other graduate-level settings that examines the intersectional impacts of race and racism throughout society.
“Let’s be clear, no one is teaching critical race theory in Iowa (K-12) public schools. It’s for college-level students,” Lykam said. “I believe our public schools should teach all of our country’s history, the good and bad parts of our country’s past. And encourage students to examine their actions and the actions of their ancestors.”
Mohr said he is unaware of any bills advancing in the Iowa Legislature this session related to the topic. However, lawmakers last year passed and Reynolds signed into law a bill that bans public schools and government agencies from promoting so-called “divisive concepts” in their teachings or trainings, including that the U.S. and Iowa are systemically racist or sexist.
Though the law does not specifically mention critical race theory, teachers and historians say it will stifle difficult conversations about the country’s bitter legacy of slavery, segregation and racial exclusion.
“It is simply looking at where we have been, where we’re going and what have we done?” Thede said. “It’s not a negative or a positive. It is simply looking at things from a factual point and to understand what’s going on.”
Thede was one of three Black state lawmakers and two Black leaders in the Iowa Democratic Party who participated in a virtual political event last month interrupted by individuals who shouted racist remarks and drew a racial epithet and posted an image of a monkey on the shared screen for all participants to see.
Paustian called the teaching of critical race theory “racist, divisive and it promotes socialism.”
“The worst part of it is we’re trying to teach our young people that if you’re a person of color, you don’t have a chance in the world,” Paustian said during the forum. “And if you’re white, you have all the privilege in the world. This is the greatest country we live in here. And everybody has a great chance to make it.”
Mommsen said he is “against any form of discrimination” and the critical race theory is tantamount to “discriminating against people of a certain segments of our population, and I think that’s totally wrong.”