Republican lawmakers are making another bid to further restrict sex education in Arizona schools.
On a party-line vote, members of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services approved legislation to bar any type of sex education before the fifth grade.
Nothing in HB 2035 changes the laws regarding what can be taught in the higher grades. But it does alter the system so that a parent would have to affirmatively give permission for a child to participate, turning what is now an opt-out system into an opt-in requirement.
Both of those were in an earlier version of the bill. But that was vetoed by Gov. Doug Ducey who called the language “overly broad and vague.”
The governor also specifically objected to verbiage that he said “could be misinterpreted by schools and result in standing in the way of important child abuse prevention education in the early grades for at-risk and vulnerable children.”
To solve that, Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, added a specific provision saying that schools are still allowed to provide “age and grade appropriate classroom instruction regarding child assault awareness and abuse prevention.”
She also agreed to strip language from the original measure that would have required an entirely separate opt-in by parents any time a teacher was discussing AIDS and the HIV virus that causes it, even when parents have signed permission slips for sex education, even though Ducey made no mention of that in his veto letter.
But Barto acknowledged during committee discussion on the measure that the now-amended measure requires not only an opt-in for actual sex education but any time any teacher in any class discusses something of a sexual nature. Rep. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, said that presents a whole host of problems.
“This is not something that just targets sex education,” he said. “This targets all of the curriculum that we see in our classrooms.”
Consider, Navarrete said, the Shakespeare tale of Romeo and Juliet.
“That has to do with sexuality,” he said.
History lessons also could be affected, Navarrete said, like a discussion around the 1969 Stonewall Riot in New York City that led to the birth of the modern LGBTQ movement. And even talking about the U.S. Supreme Court Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage also would be off limits, he said.
That did not bother supporters of the measure. Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said parents have a right to know what kind of information is being presented to their children — and have that information before it comes up in the classroom.
“Once that information is in front of the child, you can’t extract it,” she said.
“So the parent is concerned and would like to know ahead of time,” Townsend said. “And I support that.”
Less clear is whether that prior parental consent will affect after-school clubs like Gay-Straight Alliance clubs that are on some high school campuses.
“I was in the closet less than 20 years ago while I was in high school,” Navarrete said, asking if that would require a permission slip from a parent.
“Those after-school activities would be included in the bill,” Barto responded. That bothered Navarrete.
“When you are trying to find some kind of outlet to try to identify who you are or comfort around learning about why you feel this way, I find it very challenging to vote on something like this amendment,” he said.
Barto said she doesn’t see it that way.
“Frankly, public schools shouldn’t be undermining the constitutional rights of parents,” she said. “If that’s happening now and they’re not getting parental consent for after-school activities of any type, that’s inappropriate.”
But a Senate staffer pointed out that the language in what Barto has proposed is less than clear about after-school clubs. And Barto said she is “willing to consider” an amendment to clarify that that’s not what this bill is about.
The measure, which now goes to the full Senate, also requires that any new or revised course on sex education be made publicly available for at least 60 days, with at least two public hearings before adoption. It also says that any school that offers sex education must make the curricula available for parental review, both online and in person, at least two weeks before any instruction is offered.