Voters will decide the future of a new law Nov. 3 that sets up a comprehensive sexual education curriculum in Washington.
Referendum 90 asks voters to decide whether school districts must adopt or develop comprehensive sexual education curriculum consistent with state standards. Students can be excused at their parents’ request.
Voting in favor of Referendum 90 will maintain the new policy for sex education in all public schools. Voting no will nix it.
Here’s what you need to know about it.
What’s the history of this new law?
In the spring, Democrats in the Legislature passed Senate Bill 5395, which requires all districts statewide to teach comprehensive sexual health education to ensure access to all students. It was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.
Prior to the new law, a sex education curriculum was optional for Washington school districts.
Schools that did have it were required to follow the 2007 Healthy Youth Act. They couldn’t teach solely about abstinence and had to cover contraceptives and methods of disease prevention. Instruction and materials needed to be medically and scientifically accurate, inclusive and age-appropriate, and align with disease prevention guidelines outlined by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Department of Health in 2005. This kind of instruction is considered comprehensive.
In 2018, 14 secondary schools across 10 of 15 districts in Yakima County provided information on their sex education curricula to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Roughly half had policies in place that reflected the Healthy Youth Act, according to OSPI.
The new bill, developed and modified over two years, encourages districts to use a curriculum approved by the state, but it also allows them to develop their own curricula in alignment with state standards. Lessons are required to be inclusive and age-appropriate.
At the beginning of the school year, schools are required to notify parents about plans for sexual health instruction. Parents or guardians have the right to view materials and opt their student out of any or all material, without exception.
After the bill was approved, a coalition of Republicans and religious conservatives gathered signatures to place the bill on the November ballot, allowing voters to decide whether to uphold or reject the new policy.
Implementation of the law has been placed on hold pending the election results.
What would the law change?
The law makes it mandatory for all public K-12 schools to teach comprehensive sexual health. Parents or guardians maintain the individual right to opt students out.
According to state school Superintendent Chris Reykdal, the requirements could be taught in as few as six lessons over the course of a K-12 career — although his office maintains that more instruction would be preferable. At a minimum there must be one lesson between kindergarten and third grade, one in grade four or five, two in middle school and two in high school, according to the bill.
In K-3, the curriculum would cover social-emotional learning concepts like how to cope with feelings, set goals or get along with others, according to the OSPI website. No sexuality content is required by the bill at the K-3 level.
In older grades, existing STI/HIV requirements would remain. According to the bill, schools would also cover:
- A person’s physiological, psychological and sociological developmental processes.
- Developing skills to communicate, reduce health risks, and to choose healthy behaviors and relationships.
- Health care and prevention resources.
- Developing meaningful and non-exploitative relationships.
- Understanding how family, peers, community and the media influence healthy sexual relationships.
- And affirmative consent, as well as recognizing and responding to risks of violence, including bystander interventions.
The law emphasizes that there is no intent to integrate components of sex ed into “curriculum, materials or instruction in unrelated subject matters or courses.”
Why are proponents in favor of the bill?
Those in favor of the bill, say evidence shows that sexual health risks and violence are challenges teens in the state face.
Statewide, Department of Health data shows the number of adolescents with sexually-transmitted infections has been on the rise since 2014.
And, there have been more reports of unwanted sexual contact and dating violence among eighth- and 12th-grade respondents to the Healthy Youth Survey. Lessons in things like affirmative consent and bystander training are intended to help address this, according to proponents.
“People who have medically accurate, age-appropriate sex ed are less likely to experience an unwanted pregnancy or get an STI,” said Paul Dillon, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho, referring to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The education helps provide young people with education about healthy relationships so that they’re better able to respect personal boundaries and ask for consent and learn how to say no.”
“So integrating sex ed in public schools increases equity and access to accurate information,” he said, pointing to the large community of Latinx youth in Yakima County as an example.
He said LGBTQ youth also deserve to see themselves positively reflected in sex education.
The National Association of Social Workers, Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Washington Education Association and the Sexual Violence Law Center are among supporters of the sex ed bill, encouraging voters to approve Referendum 90.
The group Approve 90, Safe & Healthy Youth Washington, had raised $1.5 million as of Friday, according to the Washington Public Disclosure commission.
What do the opponents say?
Those opposed to the bill say it takes away local community and district say in what students should be taught. If districts develop their own curricula, it would add financial burden and detract focus from other core subjects. They also say it threatens to sexualize kids from a young age. Much of the emphasis has been placed on concern over K-5 students being taught content inappropriate for their age.
Kathlen Wierschke , who has a graduate degree in social work and represents the Reject Referendum 90 campaign in the Tri-Cities, said opponents aren’t against sex ed.
“We’re not opposed to sex ed. It’s going through our schools. Some of our kids, a lot of our kids have already had sex ed,” said Wierschke. “There is a place and our kids need to be taught, and we do recognize that some parents don’t teach this to their children, so we understand the need for it to be taught in a different setting.”
She said there are good points to the curriculum. But she said she has concerns about some of the topics in OSPI-approved curriculum. For example, she said, teaching kids the anatomical name of body parts is understandable. But in at least one state-approved curriculum, she said there was explanation of body parts creating pleasure when touched. Wierschke said this is inappropriate for young kids, and could make the victims of sexual abuse feel an unwarranted sense of shame for not having had that response when they were victimized.
She said that while there is the option for school districts to create their own curriculum, it would require time and cost of small districts that couldn’t afford it. She said the bill’s minimum requirement of six lessons across K-12 would not provide enough time to address all of the requirements, making the burden greater than it might sound.
Wierschke also said she thought language translation requirements should have been written into the bill so that parents and guardians were guaranteed to have access for review in their own language, making it more feasible for them to opt out their students as desired.
She said districts should be strongly encouraged to offer sexual health education, but that no new requirement should be rolled out statewide.
“I don’t believe in any forced mandate,” she said. “Is there more our kids should be knowing? Probably … But I think it should be left to the parents and the school board to decide whether they’re going to implement (comprehensive sex ed) or not. And multiple districts around the state have done that. Forcing the remaining districts to do that, I don’t think is OK.”
Reject Ref-90, known as Parents for Safe Schools, has raised $366,000, according to the WPDC. The campaign has been endorsed by the Washington State Republican Party, My Family My Choice, and the state House and Senate Republican caucuses.