May 22, 1996
Dear Senator Grassley:
The Iowa State Education Association is a professional association made up of approximately 34,000 educational employees. This figure includes approximately 85% of the K-12 classroom teachers in Iowa, as well as other professional and support personnel. The Iowa State Education Association is a state affiliate of the National Education Association. As you know, Iowa is a right-to-work state. That means that the Iowa State Education Association cannot require members to pay us money as a condition of their employment. Our members join our Association because they want to, not because they have to. The purpose of the Iowa State Education Association is to promote education and the welfare of the children, teachers, and citizens of the state of Iowa.
In my capacity as general counsel to the Iowa State Education Association I am frequently called upon to review, analyze, and assess various pieces of proposed legislation in an attempt to determine, among other things, its impact upon the Association and our members. I have recently had occasion to review the "Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1996 (S-984)" as passed out of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts on April 17, 1996. I have also had the opportunity to research applicable court case law, discuss the matter with your staff and others, and consider a number of objections being voiced by some opponents of the measure. The purpose of this letter is to share with you some of my analysis and assessment.
The legislation includes provisions dealing with the health care of children, the disciplining of children, and the religious upbringing of children. These issues are outside my area of expertise as general counsel for the Iowa State Education Association. Therefore, it is understood that my remarks are directed only at those portions of the legislation related to the education of children. While I realize any piece of federal legislation has implications for all of the states, I am directing my comments to the potential impact of S-984 on our members and the public education that they help provide to the children of the state of Iowa.
The stated purpose of this legislation is to protect "the right of a parent to direct the upbringing of the child of the parent." It seeks to include in this proposition the "directing or providing for the education of the child." This right could not be interfered with by any level of government without a demonstration that such action "is essential to accomplish a compelling governmental interest."
The people of Iowa and the Iowa State Education Association have historically been very supportive of parental rights in the area of education. As a general proposition, parents always act with the best interest of their children in mind. Experience indicates that parents are the best and most interested ally for their own child. Parents in Iowa have always been encouraged to express any concerns and ask any questions they might have about their child's education. In most cases, it has been possible to discuss the issues and reach a mutually agreeable solution in a harmonious manner.
In a wide-ranging survey taken in March, 1995, our members were asked to tell the Association what was the biggest problem facing them in their role as an educator. Twenty-one percent of them cited family breakdown and lack of parental support as their biggest concern. It would appear that our membership would welcome increased support from parents in the education of their children. No piece of legislation can force any parent to exercise even their most fundamental of rights and responsibilities. However, this bill, S-984, certainly would encourage parents and schools to work together for the betterment of Iowa's public school children.
Critics of the legislation, S-984, point to a number of situations-good and bad-that currently exist in some school districts and seem to question the need for yet another law in this area. Any legislative change, the claim goes, will lead to numerous challenges and a tremendous investment of time, energy, and money to clarify its true meaning and intent. Supporters respond by pointing out that the proposal will itself clarify the state of the law which will, in turn, avoid confusion and provide for consistency of application across state lines. Additionally, the provision included in the legislation that mandates the exhaustion of any administrative procedures set by the local school district involved would, hopefully, result in an acceptable solution without any need for court challenges.
A look at Iowa's experience might also shed some light on this issue. When the Iowa Legislature passed laws allowing parents to open enroll their children into a different district, to opt-out of certain types of courses offered by school districts, and a tuition tax credit provision (to name just a few), there were fears that the death of our public schools was imminent. These fears, fortunately, have not come to pass, perhaps, due in part to involvement by the Iowa State Education Association in fashioning the final wording and intent of the legislation.
A local school district's ability to establish such things as a standard curriculum, mandatory attendance requirements, mandatory vaccination requirements, text book selection procedures, policies to provide for the safety of the staff and students, a clear understanding of the financial obligation of the state, district, and parents, and other areas of general school administration has not been significantly hampered. I would not anticipate a change in a local school district's ability to continue performing these types of functions even if a new and different standard were to be applied. Iowa's public schools should be able to justify all of their activities.
The piece of legislation itself does not appear to change the historic role of the school board in setting district-wide policy on programs or practices. This has been confirmed to me in conversations with your staff. Additionally, I am told that it is not your intent to force a local school district to provide a special program that is not part of a district's previously established curriculum to an individual student. This bill simply allows parents a greater role in requesting that their children be allowed to opt-out of activities or assignments that are of a particular concern. Control over our school districts would still rest where it really belongs-at the local level.
With the deference already afforded parents in making decisions concerning their children in Iowa's public schools, our children consistently rank at the top of the nation in terms of educational excellence. It is with great pride that we attribute that success to the excellence of our teachers, administrators, and the active involvement of our parents and communities. I certainly have reason to believe that Iowa will continue its educational excellence with as much success should the "Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act of 1996" become law as it has accomplished up to now.
Again, let me tell you how much I appreciate the opportunity to respond to this proposed piece of federal legislation. If after reviewing this letter you or your staff have any further questions or concerns, or if I have misstated any of your intentions, please do not hesitate to contact me. Thank you for your cooperation and assistance in this matter.
James A. Smith
Associate Executive Director for Advocacy Services