SEATTLE — Democrats in the Washington state Legislature thought they had passed a routine sex education requirement for public schools earlier this year. But a coalition of Republicans and religious conservatives launched a swift, historic backlash that’s led to a bitter partisan fight and an effort to overturn the measure on the November ballot.
Democrats in the famously liberal state say they want to protect young people from sexual abuse, diseases and infections. But the increasingly outnumbered and aggrieved Republicans have taken issue with the content of the standards as they rally for local control.
The resulting referendum on the November ballot marks the first time in the country that such a decision on sex ed will be decided by voters.
Under the wide-ranging bill, kindergarteners would be taught how to manage feelings and make friends, while older kids will learn about consent and how to respond to violence. The curriculum must also address issues faced by LGBTQ students.
At least 29 states plus Washington, D.C., require public schools to teach sex education, but the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Education Commission of the States — two organizations that track policy trends — said it has never appeared on a statewide ballot. Instead, the curriculum has been debated at school boards and statehouses.
A Washington state group funded by Republican leaders called Parents for Safe Schools forced the issue onto the ballot by submitting over 264,000 signatures, the most gathered for a referendum to overturn an existing bill or law in the past four decades, according to the secretary of state. It was double the minimum number needed to make the ballot, with two-thirds coming from church sites.
The group helmed by Mindie Wirth, a tech company manager who lives in the Seattle suburb of Bothell, was aided by Catholic parishes that served as signature-gathering locations while the pandemic limited traditional petitioning activities.
“It feels like we’re just not being listened to and I think this is a very large part of what this represents,” said Wirth, a one-time Republican candidate who lost a bid for state Senate in 2016.
Courtney Normand, director of a Planned Parenthood-affiliated political group in the state, is leading the campaign in support of the sex ed bill. She said her coalition didn’t mobilize during the referendum petition because of the pandemic and was dismayed that the opposition’s in-person signature-gathering took place despite Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order.
“It seems to be a political, partisan turn-out goal rather than really an intention about student safety,” Normand said of the Republican-led efforts.
As of Sept. 24, almost half of the $1.1 million raised for Safe & Healthy Youth Washington, the campaign in support of sex ed, has come from Planned Parenthood affiliates.
Parents for Safe Schools — the campaign against the sex ed bill — has amassed $245,000 in contributions. Most came from the Reagan Fund, the political action committee of the Washington State House Republican Leadership.
Republicans have slammed the mandate as an affront to local and parental control of education. Though school boards have the authority to create or adopt their own curriculum, opponents said the bill would still dictate what must be covered in classes. Opposition leaders say they aren’t necessarily opposed to sex education but see the statewide mandate as heavy-handed.
The Washington State Catholic Conference, the policy arm of church leadership in the state, is especially opposed to the affirmative consent aspect of the curriculum because the church opposes premarital sex.
“When you get into the issues of how do you say ‘yes’ or how do you say ‘no,’ that can easily open the door to that ‘It’s OK. It’s OK to say yes and no,’ and that steps on our teaching that sexual activity is to be reserved for the sacrament of marriage,” said Mario Villanueva, executive director of the conference.
The fiercely partisan fight has carried over into the non-partisan race for state schools chief.
Maia Espinoza, who was a single mother after having her first child at 19 years old, said she decided to run against incumbent Superintendent Chris Reykdal because she is horrified by the sex ed mandate that his administration requested. Two years ago, Espinoza ran as a Republican in a losing bid for a seat in the state House.
Those in support of comprehensive sex ed say it’s a health and safety measure needed to protect children, and that there is a wide disparity among the nearly 300 public school districts in the state, a small number of which do not teach any sex education.
Reykdal, who previously served three terms as a Democrat in the state House, said the state education department routinely reviews content standards. He said the Legislature was mindful of the sensitivity of the sex ed topic, issuing age-appropriate concepts by grade level and allowing families to opt out of the lessons. Families also have a say when their local school district adopts curriculum.
State Sen. Claire Wilson, a Democrat from the Seattle suburbs, said she was moved to sponsor the bill based on her experience as an educator working with pre-teen mothers and also by hearing from men and women who said they didn’t even know the words needed to describe sexual abuse they endured as children.
“This is not about teaching sex. It never has been and it never will be,” Wilson said.