Washington's mandatory sex-education referendum tests conservative power at the ballot box

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Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee addresses the media during a visit by Vice President Mike Pence on March 5, 2020, at Camp Murray adjacent to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. - Karen Ducey/Getty Images North America/TNS

SEATTLE — This spring, as the coronavirus spread across Washington, a team of stalwart volunteers set up signature-gathering drive-thrus outside churches and stores. Their aim: to put a referendum on the November ballot overturning a new law that required public schools to teach comprehensive sexual health education.

Thousands of voters streamed to these impromptu drive-thrus. By June, more than 264,000 people had signed, more than double the number needed for the referendum to qualify for the ballot.

But in the roughly four months since then, the campaign has moved mostly online. Those who favor the sex-education law have heavily outspent the people who want to overturn it. But the pro-sex-education campaign says misinformation has flourished online, especially on social media message boards and websites.

In November, with Referendum 90, Washington voters will have a chance to decide whether the law — passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, but never enacted — will take effect. It’s the first time nationwide that sex education has appeared on a statewide ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The law was sponsored and largely approved by Democrats; most lawmakers who oppose it are Republicans.

A vote to approve the referendum would mandate public schools teach sexual health education, though parents would have the choice to opt out; a vote against it means schools don’t have to offer any form of sex education if they don’t want to.

The proposed referendum “really hit a chord with so many parents,” said state Rep. Luanne Van Werven, a Republican who represents most of Whatcom County and has helped lead the signature-gathering campaign against the law, known as Parents for Safe Schools.

Washington lawmakers added sex-education requirements, but didn’t mandate it, in 2008. Back then, the state decided that if districts offer sex education, it must be age-appropriate and medically and scientifically accurate.

If the 2020 law goes into effect, lessons would become mandatory for all students starting in kindergarten. According to the law and state education department officials, young children would learn about finding trusted adults, making friends and other topics related to social-emotional wellbeing. Older children would learn about affirmative consent, sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases. Lessons would be inclusive of all children, including LGBTQ students.

Those in favor of the law, including several prominent labor unions, civil rights groups and Democratic state officials, say a basic standard should be required statewide because all young people could benefit from information that helps them navigate relationships. “It’s about personal safety and making sure young people know they have a right to say ‘no,’” said state Sen. Claire Wilson, a Democrat, who sponsored the bill.

Opponents, which include the state’s Republican party and several anti-abortion organizations, say the law diminishes the power of local school communities. Some also object to topics covered in certain sex-education curricula.

Many Washington districts already offer some sexual health education, though it isn’t necessarily comprehensive: A recent state survey suggests that 93% of districts teach lessons in at least one grade. A large body of research suggests that comprehensive sexual health education is tied to better health outcomes among students, such as decreases in sexual activity and fewer unintended pregnancies. A 2019 health impact review of the mandatory sexual education law said it would also reduce educational inequities among students of color, those with disabilities and those from low-income homes.

With ballots now in the mail, people on both sides of the issue agree that the referendum is unlikely to draw a significant number of single-issue voters because so many more high-profile issues are on the ballot.

But it is appearing on the ballot at the same time as important national conversations, including U.S. Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s opposition to abortion rights, and comes during a year when some fear for the future of rights for women, girls and the LGBTQ community. The mandatory sexual health education law was born out of the Me Too movement, and debates over the statute it amends have always been charged with emotion.

“At the end of the day, when you combine the issue of sexual health and kids, it’s going to be a hot button issue,” said Democratic state Rep. Sharon Santos, who chairs the state House Education Committee. Santos allowed an early version of the bill to die in committee in 2019, citing concern that local school districts and other stakeholders weren’t consulted. The lack of coalition building early on, she said, has rippled through today’s campaign.

“It absolutely had long-term effects,” she said, and suggested that the law carries the political baggage from its first go-around in the Legislature.

In the final days of the campaign, divisive messaging may have only deepened the rift.

The group opposing the sex-education law had raised $339,000 as of Oct. 13, a majority of which funded signature-gathering efforts. In the past month, the campaign has paid to print off lawn signs and says volunteers are knocking on voters’ doors. But much of its outreach is happening online, the campaign’s leader says.

“There’s a lot you can do through social media that does not cost anything,” said Mindie Wirth, a tech company manager who has three children and is leading the opposition campaign. Wirth said the campaign does not oppose sexual health education in schools but has concerns about whether certain existing school curricula are age-appropriate. Under the law, districts can choose from curricula reviewed by state education officials or craft their own.

Some of the opposition’s messaging is inaccurate, said Courtney Normand, Washington state director of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, who is leading the campaign supporting the mandatory sex-education law. That group, Safe & Healthy Youth Washington, had raised $1.4 million as of Oct. 13.

For instance, a Facebook page with more than 17,000 followers that’s run by an anti-Ref. 90 group features posts that mischaracterize the law. Messages inaccurately suggest that sex-education curricula will be dictated by state education officials. Such decisions are left to school boards under the new law, said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the state’s education department; lessons must be in line with state standards.

Another post on the same page implies that the law would require teachers to talk about sex with kindergartners; however, the law does not mandate that schools teach lessons related to sexuality in grades K-3. In response to questions about these posts, Wirth said: “If the intent is to teach (social-emotional learning) for K-3, why was it written into a sex-ed bill?”

The group also shared a comment describing comprehensive sex education as “a marketing tool to sell sex to kids, replete with double-speak, conflicting messages, and strategies for convincing school officials, students, and even parents that their brand of explicit sex education is needed.”

Those involved in the pro-mandatory sex-education campaign say they’re dropping leaflets on doorsteps and staffing phone banks. Nikki Otero Lockwood, who has two daughters, one of whom has autism, said she decided to volunteer because she understands the importance of sex education.

“I came from three generations of women who had their first child at 15,” said Otero Lockwood, a Spokane School Board member. “This is important for all kids, and especially girls, to plan their futures and realize their dreams.”

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