Washington state voters will weigh in on just one ballot measure in this fall’s general election, but the intensity between supporters and opponents is fierce enough to make up for a lack of other issues on the ballot.
After being the only ballot measure to submit enough valid signatures to the Washington Secretary of State’s Office earlier this year, Referendum 90 will decide the fate of a bill (Senate Bill 5395) passed along party lines in the state Legislature that would require public school districts to adopt or develop comprehensive age-appropriate sexual health education that is consistent with state standards.
A vote to approve Referendum 90 means you support allowing the bill passed earlier this year to become law, while a vote to reject the referendum means you oppose the bill becoming law.
What the bill does
As state law presently exists, school districts have the option of whether or not to provide sexual health education, and parents or legal guardians have the ability to opt their children out of any planned sexual health instruction in class.
If voters approve Referendum 90 and the bill becomes law, schools will be required to provide sexual health education that is age-appropriate, beginning in kindergarten. However, parents and guardians still retain the right to exclude their students from any such instruction.
Schools must use curriculum that is medically and scientifically accurate, and can be chosen from a list developed by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, or chosen by themselves using a tool provided by OSPI. The instruction must use language and strategies that avoid discrimination against any student, and must include information about bystander training and affirmative consent — teaching that a voluntary, conscious agreement to engage in sexual activity is required before sexual activity takes place.
If approved by voters, schools must begin providing comprehensive sexual health education for grades 6-12 in the 2021-22 school year. All grades must begin doing so with the start of the 2022-23 school year. Public school districts must provide the instruction at least one time to students in kindergarten through third grade, once to students in grades four and five, twice to students in grades six through eight, and twice to students in high school.
At the kindergarten through third grade level, “age-appropriate” education must be instruction in social-emotional learning consistent with the standards established by OSPI.
Where elected officials stand
Support and opposition to Referendum 90 has largely been divided along partisan lines. The bill passed both the state Senate and House of Representatives on party-line votes, 27-21 in the upper chamber and 56-40 in the lower chamber, respectively.
In the 19th Legislative District, both State Sen. Dean Takko (D-Longview) and State Rep. Brian Blake (D-Aberdeen) voted to approve the bill, while State Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) voted against the bill.
In a letter to the editor that ran in the Observer in August, Takko said the intent of the bill is to give students needed knowledge that helps them to recognize and resist inappropriate behaviors, “from small children targeted by pedophiles, to older students pressured to have sex by their peers.”
“At every grade level, the curriculum is age appropriate. Young people are taught basic concepts such as stranger danger, inappropriate touching, and using your words instead of your hands. They learn to respect others’ bodies and personal space, as well as their own to protect them from predators,” Takko said.
Takko also argued that the bill strengthens parental rights, by ensuring that the curricula used by the school district is available for them to read and allows them to opt their children out.
At a “MAGA Meetup” in Ocean Park hosted by the Pacific County Republican Party in July, Walsh voiced his opposition to the bill. While he said he personally believes that sexual health education should start being taught in junior high school, he said the decisions should be made locally, and not at the state level.
“The way it ought to be is if you folks want to have a more ambitious [sexual health education] program at your schools, you elect school board members to make that decision locally,” said Walsh. “My real problem with Senate Bill 5395 and the reason why I support the referendum, which will turn it around, is the referendum maintains local control of school districts and curriculum.”
Following the money
Supporters and opponents of the bill have raised some $1.5 million dollars over the past several months to support their cause.
Supporters of the bill have coalesced behind a political action committee, Safe & Healthy Youth Washington, that was formed in June and has raised $1.22 million as of Oct. 5. The chair of the PAC is Jennifer Allen, CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii (PPVNH), the advocacy and political arm of the organization that covers Washington, Idaho, Alaska and Hawaii.
Of the $1.22 million raised by the PAC thus far, nearly $400,000 has come from cash and in-kind contributions from PPVNH. ACLU of Washington, the state affiliate of the national ACLU organization, has contributed about $215,000, and the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, has contributed $150,000.
In March, opponents of the bill formed Parents for Safe Schools, a PAC that has raised about $267,000 as of Oct. 5. The PAC’s biggest supporter is the Reagan Fund, the campaign arm for the Washington State House Republican Leadership. The Reagan Fund has contributed about $44,000 to the PAC so far.
Other contributors to Parents for Safe Schools include George Rowley, owner of an Issaquah-based real estate company, who contributed $25,000 to the PAC. Joshua Freed, a Republican who finished in third place in the August gubernatorial primary and has launched a write-in campaign for lieutenant governor in the general election, has donated $5,000.