Commentary: It’s up to the voters now on mandatory sexuality education

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In the midst of our pandemic, while students and workers were idled at home, Gov. Jay Inslee took the time to sign into law a bill that has been a top priority of the state’s school chief, Chris Reykdal.

The new law institutes the state’s first-ever mandatory curriculum for every student in the state. It’s not math, reading, science nor civics — it’s what’s called comprehensive sexual health education, starting in kindergarten. 

The bill goes far beyond the type of sex education that most of our schools currently teach, and that many of us had in school. I support that kind of sex ed: instruction in reproduction and anatomy starting in fourth or fifth grade, and adding instruction in abstinence, ways to avoid pregnancy, and disease prevention in late middle school or high school.

I call that “birds and the bees” curriculum and I think most people support it. 

This bill goes far beyond. It begins instruction in gender in kindergarten (adding formal instruction in LGBT theory in fourth grade). It also takes away local control. The new law imposes a strict top-down mandate that supposedly allows local decision-making, but without giving any actual choice.

Passage of comprehensive sex ed in Washington has been a longtime priority of the Democratic majority in the Legislature, and this year Senate Bill 5395 passed on a strict party-line vote. (Sen. Dean Takko and Rep. Brian Blake, two Democrats representing part of Lewis County, joined the rest of their caucus to vote for it. All the Republicans in this area and the state voted against.)

The bill has generated opposition like few measures in recent memory. I attended a protest against the bill last month. It was one of the last public gatherings before COVID-19 led to a shutdown of public life. 

A sea of green spilled out from the steps of the Capitol, with several thousand people urging Inslee to veto the bill.

Among those on the steps was Maia Espinoza, a teacher and leader in the Hispanic community who has announced that she will run for Superintendent of Public Instruction against the bill’s author, Chris Reykdal.

Also present were leaders of a Referendum 90, an effort to overturn the bill.

Just a few days ago, R-90 received final legal approval. It’s full-speed ahead. 

Copies of the petition are available at www.parentsforsafeschools.com, which is now quickly printing and mailing off the petitions.

The group needs to gather 129,811 signatures in around two months — while most public life is rightfully shut down to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

It’s a lot of signatures to collect in an unprecedented time, but it’s certainly doable, according to Mindie Wirth, a public school mom and tech executive in the Bothell area who filed R-90 and is leading the effort to give voters a chance to rescind the law.

“Please sign up to get a petition even if it’s just you and your spouse. We’ll take it,” Wirth said. “Parents and local school boards need to have a voice in the curriculum that’s going to be shared within their district, whatever that is. That’s where the decision making should really be.”

Supporters of the law, including the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, say the law is benign and really won’t change much. Hidden in their assurances, however, is the new law’s mandate that every school district’s new sex ed curriculum “must be consistent with” the state’s Health and Physical Education K-12 Learning Standards. Here are just a couple of those standards that are now mandated by this new law:

• First grade students: Identify medically accurate names for body parts, including external reproductive anatomy.

• Fifth grade students: Identify trusted adults to ask questions about gender identity and sexual orientation.

There are 125 more “core ideas” for sexual health. If you haven’t read the state’s sexual health education standards, you probably should. Find them for yourself here: www.bit.ly/WA-Sex-Ed-Standards

Supporters also say that mandatory sex ed throughout K-12 is crucial to prevent sex abuse. Interestingly, Washington state already has a law on the books to teach abuse prevention. In fact, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction is in charge of implementing it. That 2018 measure, called Erin’s Law, is voluntary for school districts. Read about it here: www.bit.ly/Erins-Law

Rather than modify Erin’ Law by mandating this limited, age-appropriate abuse prevention instruction, which would accomplish its stated goal, OSPI left that bill voluntary, but instead pushed a much broader bill to sexualize the public schools, and majority leaders in the Legislature pushed it through on a party-line vote. 

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And so we’re left with a referendum. We’re fortunate that Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman has approached her job with a dedication to following both the letter of the Constitution and the spirit of the law during this time of coronavirus social distancing. She is being as flexible as she can, allowing some variations from the normal conventions of signature gathering. What has not changed is that she must receive actual physical signatures in her office. Online petitions don’t count. 

Wirth and the folks at www.parentsforsafeschools.com are coordinating the referendum campaign. It’s up to us, if we value local choice and reasonable sex ed, rather than a “comprehensive” K-12 mandate, to get the signatures while practicing social distancing. Order your signature at that website.

If and when R-90 makes the ballot, Wirth believes voters will overturn the law. 

“We’re pretty confident,” she told me. “A lot of Democrats are quietly not happy about this, either. This is not something we see as a partisan issue.”

Our kids are out of school right now to stay safe from a deadly virus. Let’s make sure that when they go back, their schools are also safe for their minds, bodies and spirits. 

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Brian Mittge is a proud public school graduate and parent. Drop him a line at brianmittge@hotmail.com.

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