A bill that would tighten restrictions on sexual education in Alaska sat on Gov. Bill Walker's desk Wednesday, scheduled to automatically become law at 11:59 p.m. Thursday if he did not veto it.
Walker hasn't said whether he'll sign or veto the bill, or let it become law without his signature. His office remained silent on House Bill 156 this week while lawmakers and lobby groups continued to blast out emails, urging constituents to call the governor. Most butted heads over the bill's language on sex education, which was added as an amendment introduced by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla.
With the amendment, the bill requires anyone who teaches sex education classes or programs to either have a valid teacher certificate and be under contract with the school, or be supervised by someone who is. The instructor supervised by a teacher and classroom materials relating to sex ed would also have to be approved by the local school board. Parents must be able to review the instructor's credentials and the related classroom materials.
Dunleavy said in an interview Wednesday that the bill gives parents additional oversight of what's happening in their children's schools, as well as a public forum to analyze sex ed materials. He said he has heard from concerned parents who feel they don't have control over sex education and who want to pull their children out of public school because of that.
"I think this is going to help school districts. I think it's going to inform parents. It does not prevent folks from teaching sex education in our schools," Dunleavy said.
Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, disagrees. She said Wednesday that she hopes Walker vetoes the bill. The bill creates more paperwork for teachers and she fears it will create overly burdensome hurdles for medical professionals who go into rural classrooms and teach sex-ed programs. Approval by the principal or classroom teacher should be enough, she said.
"I'm a believer that information is power and information is power for our teenagers too," Gardner said. "And we want them to know how to protect themselves. We want them to understand what a healthy relationship looks like."
HB 156 doesn't only address sexual education. Before Dunleavy's amendment, the bill, sponsored by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, focused largely on standardized testing.
It would require state education authorities to work directly with school districts on a new statewide testing regime. It bans the state from requiring school districts to administer a statewide standardized test until July 1, 2018, unless the federal government threatens to withhold funding.
Keller said earlier this year that it would allow the state to pause its annual testing and create a new system after this year's failed Alaska Measures of Progress Test, marred by technical glitches and canceled only a few days into the statewide testing period.
As Keller's bill worked through the House, Dunleavy had sponsored a separate bill in the Senate that would have specifically banned "abortion service providers" from teaching anything in public schools and was widely perceived as targeting Planned Parenthood. That bill was voted down and a diluted version was tacked onto Keller's bill.
Dunleavy said conversations with people made him realize "there was probably a better route to go," and he introduced the amendment that doesn't ban any specific type of organization, but instead requires school board approval.
"If they approve Planned Parenthood in their schools, then Planned Parenthood will be in their schools teaching sex ed," he said. "Parents then can know what's happening and parents can view their curriculum."
A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Northwest, Jessica Cler, said by phone Wednesday from Anchorage that the amendment to Keller's bill still restricts access to sex education in Alaska. She worried that nurses and doctors volunteering to speak in classrooms would not want to meet the requirements laid out in the bill. She worried that a state with already high rates of sexually transmitted diseases, reported rapes and teenage pregnancy would receive even less education. She also worried it would be harder for teachers to adjust their lesson plans with new or updated materials.
"The reality is in a lot of these places the barriers would become prohibitive," she said.