Senator Berta Gardner

July 26, 2016

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The Anti-Sex Education Bill that Refused to Die

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

Teens lined the halls waiting to testify on SB191.
Teens lined the halls waiting to testify on SB191.

Given the state of our current fiscal crisis, I assumed a real plan would be the focus of the Republican-controlled leadership in the legislature this session.  I anticipated cuts, but also hoped for genuine consideration of the many revenue generation options designed to allow a comprehensive, fair, sustainable fiscal plan for all Alaskans. Majority leadership assured us time and time again that fiscal matters took priority and other less-pressing legislation could wait. 

Despite assurances, the smoke and mirror games to distract Alaskans from the real and pressing issue of our deficit came thick and fast.  Some of these “distraction bills” came through one of my committees, the Education Committee.  Alaska has serious educational challenges to overcome.  We do not rank well in any of our assessments compared to the rest of the nation.  Early education and reading proficiency are just a couple of the issues needing to be addressed. We have a lot of important work to do, but the majority of the discussions and hearings in Senate Education this year did not focus on improving access to early education or reading proficiency.  They focused on restricting access to science-based education on reproduction and sexual health. This effort is inexcusable in a state that scores among the highest in the country for things like STD rates, sexual-assault, teen pregnancy, and domestic violence.  While purported to be a bill that dealt with “parental rights,” it merely adds additional barriers towards sexual education since parents already have the right to withdraw their children from any class in school, including sex education. In reality, this bill was little more than an attack on Planned Parenthood of Alaska. 

A brief re-cap and history of anti-Planned Parenthood legislation this session

Trying to understand and follow all of the different “anti-Planned Parenthood” bills may have left heads spinning, so here’s a brief re-cap (you can read the most recent version of the bills by clicking on the bill number):

•   SB89: Sponsored by Senator Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), first introduced on March 25, 2015 but failed in the House Health and Social Services (HSS) Committee on April 12, 2016.

•   SB 191: Sponsored by Senator Dunleavy, introduced on February 22, 2016.  It passed out of Senate Education Committee, chaired by senator Dunleavy, on March 16 but was not taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

•   HB192A bill similar to SB89, sponsored by Rep. Wes Keller (R-Wasilla) on April 11, 2015.  This bill never received a hearing.

•   HB 352A bill similar to SB191, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) and introduced on February 24, 2016.  It stalled in committee.

•   HB156Sponsored by Rep. Wes Keller and introduced on March 20, 2015.  Components of Sen. Dunleavy’s failed SB89 and other amendments were added in the Senate Education Committee on April 12, 2016.  It passed out of both the House and Senate and currently awaits the Governor’s signature or veto.  If no action is taken by July 28, 2016, this bill becomes State law.

What HB156 would do if it were enacted

Originally, HB156 was written to allow Alaska to postpone the requirement for a statewide education assessment until the Department of Education felt confident about which assessment we would use, after problems emerged surrounding the AMP (Alaska Measures of Progress) test.  A statewide assessment measures progress and is required to access certain federal education dollars. This legislation puts approximately $99 million of federal funding to Alaska at risk by not complying with that requirement. 

I agree that Alaska needs a better assessment, but I hesitate to put any funds at risk when our state has already implemented harsh education cuts this year.  A number of other amendments were added in the Senate Education Committee.  Some helped, and received support from the Association of Alaska School Boards, and the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED).  One addressed a long-standing issue known as the “70/30 rule.”  This rule requires that 70% of state dollars received by schools must be used to educate students, while 30% can go towards maintenance and other costs.  This sounds reasonable, but we heard in committee that DEED receives waivers from twenty or more school districts every year (mostly in rural areas) that can’t meet that requirement because of their high utility and maintenance costs.  Freeing those districts from the red tape and time it takes to get the waiver every year makes sense, and the legislature can assess how school districts use State dollars to determine if a more appropriate rule should be enacted.  A handful of other amendments were added to ease some cost burden from districts. 

One of the more notable amendments could actually harm schools by preventing educational opportunities, and barring resources like Planned Parenthood, or other credentialed individuals including nurses and doctors from providing sexual education in the classroom.  The provision, which had been killed twice before, was inserted yet again in an attempt to manipulate the legislative process and find a way to appease the anti-Planned Parenthood faction.

Even though the anti-sex ed components of SB89 added to HB156 were diluted from their original form - they would still restrict much-needed access to resources in a state that can use all the resources available. The current wording requires every non-certified teacher (volunteer or paid) to receive approval via a vote of the school board if any content relates to sexual education, human reproduction or human sexuality.  This not only demands that otherwise qualified instructors jump through unnecessary hoops, but diminishes opportunities for guest presenters in the classroom.  For instance, a doctor or nurse practitioner may be traveling to a rural community and be available to talk to the students about sexual education or disease prevention.  If the visit is only for a day or two, or with little notice, a full vote of the school board is impractical, and means a lost opportunity for students. Right now, approval from the principal or a certified classroom teacher is enough. It should stay that way.

Outside instruction on sexual education is important to students.  Testimony from students before the Education Committee revealed that they aren’t always comfortable asking embarrassing questions about sex or sexual health from their regular teachers who they see every day.  Organizations like Planned Parenthood offer fact-based education to schools that ask for their help, and to students who appreciate a safe and comfortable place to get accurate and straightforward answers to their questions.  The curriculum has proved so beneficial and informative, a number of teachers use Planned Parenthood’s materials, even without Planned Parenthood’s presence in the classroom. 

As a parent, I know how sensitive this subject can be.  Many great parents get tongue-tied when it’s time to talk about the “birds and the bees” to their kids.  That is why our public education system should do a top-notch job providing that information.  I cringe at the thought of students learning about sex from the internet or from friends.  We owe it to our students to make this information available to them, for their own safety and the safety of others.  The sponsor of SB89 claims that he is not trying to reduce access to sexual education, but by adding these additional barriers, that’s exactly what he is doing.  The motive behind SB89, which is now nestled in HB156, was to remove abortion service providers (aka Planned Parenthood) from our schools claiming falsely that they promote abortion by “creating future clients.” I’d say that’s nonsense. The most reliable path to increased abortion is not sex education, but the lack of it which causes unwanted pregnancies – 40% of which end in abortion.

We must take a realistic look at our challenges, and trust the power of information and fact-based education to help overcome them. As someone who believes deeply in the importance of all types of education, you know where I stand.

I’m Berta and I’m still listening,

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact my office.

signed: Berta

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