EDITORIAL: Are culture wars really what Alaska schools need?

Just about everyone you talk to in Alaska agrees that we need to make improvements in schools. But what those preferred “improvements” look like depend a great deal on people’s personal politics — and lately, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his allies have muddied the water by focusing not on funding or performance but on sexual education and gender politics. Although the governor’s House Bill 105 is styled a “parental rights” bill by its proponents, it doesn’t so much empower all parents as a specific group who want to control the Alaska school experience not just for their own children but everyone else’s, too — and that’s where it creates more problems than it solves.

HB 105, like several other bills in states around the country, is a response to a belief among some parents that schools are exposing children to unnecessarily explicit material. But a close reading of the bill shows that the only right it bestows upon parents that isn’t already part of state law is a requirement that parents be informed if their children wish to go by a different name or gender identifier — which, incidentally, is written so specifically that nicknames such as “Mike” for “Michael” would require notification — along with explicit language telling parents how to sue schools if they feel that information has been unfairly withheld.

Sex education

The bill’s backers say its provisions are necessary to ensure they have the right to not have their children exposed to information about sex or gender identity. But the fact is, parents already have the right to opt their children out of any sexual education instruction. Current law already requires that schools notify parents two weeks in advance of sexual education instruction, giving them plenty of time to opt out. And the law also provides for parents to be able to review curriculum materials to decide if they’re comfortable with what their child is being taught. HB 105 would also ban sex education before fourth grade, which would have no practical effect, given that no schools in Alaska have such a curriculum.

The meaningful change HB 105 actually makes is to change all sexual education from parents being able to opt their children out of the curriculum to instead require that parents affirmatively opt their children into it. Historically, changing programs from opt-out to opt-in has resulted in a significant decline in participation. This would be justifiable if parents were intentionally choosing to keep their children from participating, but much of the decline in the few other states with an opt-in standard has been due to permission forms simply not being returned, which, as any parent who has ever dealt with a last-minute field trip crisis knows, is hardly a solid indicator of a parent’s wishes. Given that reality, the effect of this change — by design — will be that many fewer children are exposed to sex ed. Similarly, this legislation would also require opt-in for lessons about sexual abuse awareness and prevention, as well as teen dating violence prevention, Erin’s Law and Bree’s Law, a troubling outcome for the state that regularly has the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Bathrooms and gender identity

Another focus of HB 105 is newly limiting students use of bathroom facilities according to their “biological sex,” which is to say what’s listed on their birth certificate. This, again, has little to do with expanding parents’ rights — there is no requirement, fortunately, that parents be notified two weeks before their student is allowed to go to the bathroom — and more with restricting the rights of particular students to use a bathroom where they feel safe. Wouldn’t a simpler and less divisive standard be mandating that schools provide a few unisex bathrooms that are open to all kids who’d feel more comfortable using them? It would certainly be less controversial and, in most cases, it would be as cheap as changing out the plastic sign next to the bathroom door. Instead of making educators the lavatory police, we should be allowing them to maintain their focus in the classroom and provide some options for all kids.


Parental choices

Ultimately, the governor is catering to a vocal minority of culture warriors in pushing a bill that would do nothing to improve the quality of education in Alaska — which should be the focus of both the governor and the Legislature.

The reality is that every family in Alaska is different, with different beliefs and values, and a public education system should do its best to accommodate these differences as much as possible, not just the beliefs of those who happen to be in power at the moment. Rather than one group using legislation to force their beliefs and values on the wider population of students, the state should focus on providing more school choice across the system of education. Families at all points along the political spectrum would be happier if there were more options for them to find publicly funded education models that align with their beliefs and values.

While school choice options must be expanded, today there are already many options that parents should be familiar with. Concerned your child isn’t being served well by the curriculum in their present school? Familiarize yourself with charter schools that offer a more specific or differently tailored educational experience. In Anchorage, options abound, from STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — to Native cultural education and language immersion programs. If the governor or legislators want to truly expand parents’ ability to manage their children’s education, a bill lowering barriers for new charter schools would be considerably more popular and less divisive than forcing them to return a permission slip so that their child can be taught that “no means no.”

If charter schools aren’t the right fit, alternative schools, as well as homeschooling options and support, have increased tremendously. In addition to ABC and optional schools, programs like Montessori and even the ASD Virtual curriculum provide a wealth of options for parents and students alike.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that one’s personal beliefs about what school should be are the only way the system should work. But the fact is that parents and students have some options for tailoring the educational experience, and the state should work to expand those options further. The answer isn’t forcing everyone to do things the same way — it’s empowering families to be able to choose the education that aligns best with their beliefs and values. Despite the misguided attempts to force his worldview on students, the governor is correct about one thing: The final responsibility to prepare our young ones to lead this state forward rests with their parents, not the state. If our leaders focused on giving those parents more choices — to help them find the school solution that works best for them, instead of turning classrooms and bathrooms into the frontlines of the culture war, it would surely help our schools’ performance, which is where our primary focus should have remained all along.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.