House Education Committee advances opt-in sex ed bill in 4-3 vote

Sen. Mike Dunleavy, March 14, 2016
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 89. It’s already cleared the Senate. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

A bill to bar organizations like Planned Parenthood from teaching sexual education in public schools narrowly cleared a hurdle in the Alaska House on Wednesday.

Much of the public input around Senate Bill 89 in recent weeks has centered on “the birds and the bees.” The bill’s supporters want parents to have the final say on kids’ sex education, while its opponents say the bill would make it harder for students to get complete, science-based information.

But as members of the House Education Committee considered the bill Wednesday morning, they were also concerned with the other things it does. For one, the bill says school districts may not pay for routine physical exams for teachers, which are required in some but not all districts.

The bill also requires parents to opt their kids into not only sex ed lessons, but standardized tests as well.

That part was a major selling point for Rep. Jim Colver, R-Palmer, who is a vocal opponent of the state’s most recent standardized test, the Alaska Measures of Progress.

“One of the most significant sections of the bill recognizes the authority of a parent to withdraw their child from a standards-based assessment,” said Colver. “Especially after going through what I call a useless top-down exercise with the AMP testing, which is going on right now. So I think that’s very to put that authority into statute.”

Democratic Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D-Anchorage, on the other hand, said the opt-in provision would create more hassle for districts.

“As the parent of three school-age children myself, I can’t tell you how many times I intended to sign (a permission slip) and didn’t get to it, or it got lost in a backpack and I fully would have signed the permission slip but had to get a call from the teacher instead,” said Spohnholz. “I just think it’s an unnecessary barrier we’re creating to, in theory, protect a right that we already have as parents, which is to pull our students out of sexual health education.”

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said he’s most concerned with the bill’s health impacts, including the possibility that restricted access to sex ed will lead to more unplanned pregnancies and increased sexually transmitted disease rates. But he also believes the bill would take power away from local school districts.

“This is a state usurpation of local control,” said Seaton, “and this is I believe the first time in which we’re coming in and we are saying that the local districts can no longer identify their curriculum.”

The education committee passed SB 89 in a 4-3 vote. Republican Reps. Wes Keller, Jim Colver, Liz Vasquez and David Talerico supported the bill. Seaton voted against it with Democratic Reps. Ivy Spohnholz  Harriett Drummond.

The bill now goes to the House Health and Social Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Seaton. It hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.

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