Education

Bill tightening sex-ed restrictions in Alaska schools will become law without governor's signature

Gov. Bill Walker announced Thursday he would not sign a bill that tightens restrictions on sex education, allowing it to become law without his signature.

"This was a very close call for me. I received a lot of input on this legislation –from both sides," Walker said in a prepared statement. "Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature."

Thursday was the deadline for Walker to make a decision to sign or veto the bill before it automatically became law. In a letter to House Speaker Mike Chenault, Walker said he believed some of the bill's provisions had been misunderstood and some may have uncertain impacts, but the administration and Legislature would continue to monitor the bill's effects.

"The bill may not be perfect, but as a whole, I believe the potential advantages to school districts due to the bill should be given the chance to work," he said.

[Read Walker's Transmittal Letter.]

House Bill 156 brings widespread changes to education in Alaska, but its new requirements for instructors of sex education and their classroom materials arose as the most contentious. The bill requires local school boards to approve instructors teachers choose to bring to their classrooms to teach sex education lessons. The guest instructors' credentials must also be made available to parents to review, the bill says.

Opponents of the bill fear it will create burdensome obstacles for medical professionals who stop into classrooms in rural Alaska to teach sex education. But a key supporter, Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said Wednesday the bill would create more transparency and give parents additional oversight of their children's education. Dunleavy introduced the amendment to House Bill 156 that added the language about sex education.

Walker said in his letter that the bill offered additional transparency and encouraged parental involvement. The bill also puts into law a parent's right to withdraw a child from testing, activities, classes and programs. Walker said the bill would not prevent the teaching of sex education.

"I have heard concerns that important information on these sensitive topics will be withheld, but the bill does not compel that result. Instead, the bill's provisions recognize the need for thoughtful and knowledgeable instruction on these subjects," he said in the letter. "Indeed, these provisions appear not to be a significant departure from current school district practice."

Planned Parenthood Northwest rebuked Walker's move to let the bill become law, calling it "failed leadership" and calling the bill "a crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education in Alaska."

"Every single guest speaker, every curriculum, and even every piece of paper being used must be individually approved by each school board," Jessica Cler, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Northwest, said in a prepared statement. "This is designed to do one thing: block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships."

Aside from sex-education regulations, HB 156 also creates a list of new education requirements around testing and local control. It says the state cannot require school districts to give a statewide standardized test until July 1, 2018, unless the federal government threatens to withhold funding.

It also requires that the state Department of Education start reporting how student performance at Alaska schools compares to those in other states. And it removes the "70/30" requirement, which mandated that each school district spend a minimum of 70 percent of its operating expenditures on instruction.

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