A Senate education bill that would allow parents to opt their children out of standardized tests moved out of committee Thursday with additional language that would prohibit school districts from allowing an "abortion services provider" to provide course materials or instruction to students on sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases.
Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, chairs the Senate Education Committee and introduced both the original bill and later the amendment on sex education classes. He said at a committee meeting Thursday in Juneau that parents believe when their children go to school they are learning subjects like math, science, chemistry and physics. Teachers can teach sex education, he said, but "third parties" can't.
"We're not outlawing abortion services providers; we're saying, 'Take it out of the school,'" he said.
A vast majority of those who testified at the meeting Thursday opposed the bill, many speaking specifically about the amendment on sex education approved Tuesday. Others called attention to a provision in the bill that said parents could pull their students from any class, activity or program if concerned over "content involving human reproduction or sexual matters."
Izabella Powers, a student at the University of Alaska Southeast, said the state's young people should have access to comprehensive sex education, noting Alaska's high rate of rape and sexually transmitted diseases.
"How do we expect to solve this problem if parents are opting out of sexual education for their children?" Powers said.
The FBI has said that reported rapes are more common in Alaska than in any other state. And since 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ranked Alaska as the state with the highest or second-highest rate of chlamydia.
In a statement Wednesday, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest said the Alaska legislators had targeted Planned Parenthood with the amendment. If passed into law, the amended bill would prohibit the nonprofit from providing any sexual health education in Alaska public schools.
"We fill an important gap left by the state's inaction on ensuring students have access to the information they need to make educated decisions about relationships and sex," said a statement from Jessica Cler, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. "Until the state steps up in providing medically accurate sexual health education to all students, communities rely on us to provide that information."
Planned Parenthood, when invited into schools, provides programs from how to prevent STIs to education on consent and healthy relationships. The programs are based on the community's needs, Cler said.
Rep. Lora Reinbold, R-Eagle River, said she testified Thursday as a mother. Reinbold said in education parental involvement is the key to success. The state must recognize parental rights. She said she found Planned Parenthood programs "extraordinarily offensive."
Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, said she did not know why the amendment was necessary. She said she had not heard any testimony that described the educational information from Planned Parenthood as inaccurate, unwanted or biased.
"Additionally, I think this is state overreach," she said of the bill's amendment. "This is the decision that should be made by local school districts, by principals and administrators, and by teachers about what information should be presented in their classrooms and who the presenters should be."
Dunleavy said the purpose of the bill is to codify parents' inherent rights.
Mike Hanley, commissioner of the state Department of Education and Early Development, expressed concern at the meeting that by putting into law that parents could withdraw their children from standardized tests, the federal government may see it as a "systematic" opt-out. If so, that could jeopardize federal funds.
"The vast majority of parents will still take the test because they want to," Dunleavy said. He said the federal government was constantly telling the state what to do, citing Bristol Bay and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"And now, by God, you can't even have your kid miss a test," Dunleavy said.
Dunleavy, Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, and Sen. Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, recommended that the bill pass out of committee. Gardner did not. Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, was absent from the end of the meeting.
The bill will now go the Senate State Affairs Committee.