Voters get final word on a controversial sex education law

Referendum 90 stirs the passion of partisans, religious leaders and defenders of local control.

Stephanie Jerdon with A Voice for Washington Children holds a stack of signed petitions for Referendum 90 at the group’s celebration in the Spokane Valley on June 2. (A Voice for Washington Children)

Stephanie Jerdon with A Voice for Washington Children holds a stack of signed petitions for Referendum 90 at the group’s celebration in the Spokane Valley on June 2. (A Voice for Washington Children)

ARLINGTON — Courtney Normand and Mindie Wirth agree there’s value in teaching sex education in Washington’s public schools.

But the two Snohomish County mothers disagree sharply on a new state law mandating comprehensive sex education in every district’s curriculum in every grade, starting in kindergarten.

It’s propelled them into the spotlight of the impassioned battle over Referendum 90, a statewide ballot measure which gives voters the final say on keeping or repealing the controversial law.

Normand, of Arlington, backs the law, believing it will provide children building blocks for self-awareness by ensuring they receive accurate and age-appropriate information about their bodies, about consent and about relationships.

“We know that this legislation will give our young people the tools they need for a healthy and more equitable future,” said Normand, a mother of two elementary students who is the state director for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. She is a spokeswoman for the campaign to convince voters to preserve the law.

Wirth, of Bothell, is a leading voice for opponents. To her, existing statutes, which let local school boards decide the extent of sex education curricula, are better than the prescriptive nature of a statewide mandate.

“The thing that sticks out is the local control piece,” said Wirth, a mother of three school-aged children and leader of Parents for Safe Schools. “Parents want to be involved in the process, and this takes that away and gives it to Olympia.” Wirth, who works for a Kirkland software firm, ran unsuccessfully for state Senate on the Republican ticket in 2016.

Battle lines

At the center of the fight is Senate Bill 5395, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed in March. It is on hold pending the outcome of Referendum 90 in the Nov. 3 election.

Under SB 5395, every district must have a curriculum for comprehensive sexual health education in place for grades six through 12 in the 2021-22 school year, and all grades, including kindergarten, beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

As envisioned, instruction would evolve as students grow older. In grades K-3, a focal point would be emotional learning, which would cover how to make friends and manage feelings.

Starting in fourth grade and continuing through high school, the law says, a school’s curriculum should contain instruction in physiological development, choosing healthy behaviors, developing meaningful relationships and affirmative consent, which is defined in the law as “a conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity as a requirement before sexual activity.”

The law says students should receive instruction from the curriculum at least once between kindergarten and third grade, at least once in the next two grades, at least twice between sixth and eighth grades, and at least twice during grades nine through 12.

And the new law, like existing practice in districts with sex ed classes, lets parents exempt their children from the instruction.

This was one of the most controversial bills of the 2020 legislative session, drawing hundreds of people — opponents and supporters — to hearings. It mirrored the response in 2019, when a similar bill failed to get a vote in the state House.

This year turned out differently.

Democrats used their majorities in the House and Senate to push it through over strong opposition from Republicans. By the time Inslee signed it, his office had received 9,850 messages opposed to the measure and 59 in support.

Backers spent the time between the 2019 and 2020 sessions working to broaden understanding of and backing for the proposal, Normand said.

“We wanted to be supportive of legislation we believed in. We hoped we had reached the common ground. We tried to not go pick a fight,” she said. “We were dismayed at the way disinformation was used politically and really made out the legislation to be something it was not.”

Wirth said members of her group felt frustrated that their views and their ideas were ignored.

“There was a middle ground, we thought,” she said.

It’s not only the broadened mandate that is fueling dissent. Republican lawmakers, some of whom helped form Parents for Safe Schools and launch the referendum, have made it a rallying cry in many legislative races this year.

And many foes oppose teaching sex education in public schools because of religious beliefs.

The Washington State Catholic Conference, which represents bishops, opposed the law and is urging voters to reject Referendum 90. It contends the curriculum is not in line with Catholic teaching.

“Parents can opt their children out of classroom instruction, but they cannot opt them out of schoolyard discussions and the culture change that may take place at school” as the result of a comprehensive sexual health education curriculum, reads a statement on the group’s website.

Not all people of faith are opposed to the sex ed mandate. In September, 100 religious leaders signed a statement urging voters to approve the referendum.

“Caring for our bodies and relationships in loving and knowledgeable ways is consistent with the teachings of many faiths,” they wrote. “We believe that our children and youth need education about bodies and relationships that is both age appropriate and medically accurate, which too many schools and communities in Washington don’t currently provide, leaving our young people at risk.”

Sex ed today

Many school districts in Washington already teach sexual health education.

The Arlington School District, for example, uses a curriculum known as FLASH (Family Life and Sexual Health) in its elementary and secondary schools. Middle school also uses “Glencoe Health” as a textbook.

Instruction also includes lessons on HIV/AIDS prevention. Students in middle and high school get assignments that emphasize conversations with parents, guardians or another caring adult, when possible, as well as staying safe and healthy relationships, according to Kari Henderson-Burke, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning.

FLASH is a widely used sexual health education curriculum developed by Public Health–Seattle & King County and designed to prevent teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and sexual violence. It contains lesson plans for grades 4 through 12.

In the Lake Stevens School District, FLASH is one of two components used for students in secondary schools. The other is KNOW, an HIV/STD prevention curriculum developed by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Two programs — Second Step, created by the Committee for Children, and The Great Body Shop, developed by the Children’s Health Market, are used in kindergarten through fifth grades.

The Everett School District primarily uses Get Real for its middle and high school students. The materials are crafted by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

Normand and Wirth agreed that should the new law take effect, these districts and many others won’t need to make many adjustments.

Vox populi

Parents for Safe Schools put the issue in front of voters by submitting 266,000 signatures, the most ever garnered for a referendum.

Signature-gathering began slowly, largely due to restrictions imposed statewide to blunt the spread of the coronavirus. A stay-home order closed businesses and churches — two lucrative arenas for signatures — and limited everyone’s movement.

Wirth said petitions got mailed out and returned, some with a couple names on them. In late April, as access to churches improved, so did the collection.

People got creative and set up drive-through signing stations in church parking lots. Volunteers with masks and gloves put out petitions, people drove up, signed with their own pen, and drove on. At one point there were 160 such sites, many on grounds of Catholic churches. As in-person services resumed, petitions can be placed on tables at churches.

“It really reflects the people’s passion on this issue,” Wirth said. “There is a better way to do this.”

With Referendum 90, voters will be making a bit of history. It will be the first time in the country that the fate of a sex ed law will be decided by voters.

And for Washington voters, it will be the second straight year they will get the final word on a significant social policy pushed by Democrats.

In 2019, by a very narrow margin, voters repealed a measure passed by the Legislature that sought to reinstate the use of affirmative action in state employment, contracting and admission to public colleges and universities. In the end, 50.6 percent rejected Referendum 88.

A referendum can be a tricky item for voters, though it does seem straightforward in this instance.

Voters will see a short description of Senate Bill 5395, the new law, on their ballot. A vote to approve means you want it to take effect, and a vote to reject means you want to repeal the law.

As of Oct. 5, Safe and Healthy Youth Washington, the political committee behind the Approve 90 campaign, had raised roughly $1.1 million in cash and another $100,000 from in-kind contributions. It had nearly $1 million available, according to reports filed online with the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Nearly $500,000 is from Planned Parenthood affiliates, including $350,000 in cash from Normand’s group. The ACLU and the Washington Education Association, the statewide teacher’s union, have each given $150,000 in cash plus thousands more through in-kind contributions.

Approve 90 backers list endorsements from more than 115 organizations, including several Democratic Party groups. That is in addition to the faith leaders’ statement.

Parents for Safe Schools reported $246,325 in contributions as of Oct. 5, though most had been raised and spent to get the measure on the ballot. It had roughly $30,000 in cash on hand Monday.

It received an early $25,000 contribution from the Reagan Fund, the political arm of the House Republican caucus. It also received $25,000 from George Rowley of Issaquah, a retired developer and Republican Party stalwart.

The coalition of opposition also includes Informed Parents of Washington, A Voice for Washington Children and the Family Policy Institute of Washington, based in Lynnwood.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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