In more than 10 hours of public testimony on a bill proposed by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy to put new limits on sexual education, most testifiers have opposed the measure, citing the potential harm it could cause vulnerable transgender youth.
But House Education Committee co-chair Jamie Allard said Thursday she has heard from “thousands of Alaskans” who support the measure, and that “the public testimony on HB105 has either been intentionally misleading or ill informed of what the bill does.”
Rep. Allard’s comment came at the beginning of a second public hearing on the measure, which would add restrictions on sexual education in public schools and limit the rights of gender non-conforming students. Dunleavy has described it as a “parental rights” bill. In the hearing, which lasted six hours and concluded after 11:30 p.m., the committee heard from nearly 180 people. More than 130 of them opposed the bill. Fewer than 40 testifiers spoke in favor of the bill, despite calls in the days leading up to the hearing on conservative media for more testifiers to speak up in support of it.
Several opponents of the bill responded directly to Allard’s questioning of their interpretation of it.
“I’m not misguided on this bill. I read it. I believe it is founded on substantial fearmongering and not based on actual risk,” said Rachel Lord, a parent from Homer. “(I) do not appreciate having the content of my testimony be undermined with the supposition that it’s misguided.”
The bill would ban gender nonconforming students from using bathrooms according to their gender identity; require parental permission for students to use a different name or different pronouns in school; require schools to share children’s medical records with parents and guardians; allow parents to sue schools when that requirement is violated; ban all sexual education before fourth grade; and require students to obtain parental permission in order to participate in any sexual or gender education from fourth grade onward.
The legislation, which mirrors bills proposed in several other states, has spurred more public comments than any other bill this legislative session, the vast majority of which are in opposition to the measure. In the first public hearing on the bill, over 100 citizens spoke, with only 16 in favor of the bill. Hundreds of Alaskans have also written letters to the committee, most in opposition.
Opponents, including people who identify as LGBTQ+ and their advocates, say it will expose vulnerable children, create challenges for teachers at a time when Alaska is already struggling to recruit educators, encourage frivolous lawsuits against school districts, and make it more difficult for all students to access needed sexual education.
Proponents of the measure, including Dunleavy, say it is needed to preserve parents’ rights over their children’s education. The bill’s backers, many of whom cited their Christian faith, say sexual education content in schools goes against their personal beliefs.
“Imagine your child coming home and saying, ‘Oh, this is what we did today,’ and it’s something that you are completely, totally opposed to, and you’ve had no say in the matter,” said Kathy Miller from Kenai. “The family is a sacred institution created by God and anything that interferes with that institution is evil.”
The measure, which was proposed by the governor in March, is unlikely to pass the Legislature this year, given opposition from the bipartisan Senate majority. But Allard has called the bill “outstanding” and devoted hours of the committee’s time to hearings, with plans for more. She said Thursday that the bill could come up again later this month. The other co-chair of the House Education Committee, Soldotna Republican Rep. Justin Ruffridge, has expressed reservations about the bill. Neither Allard nor Ruffridge responded to interview requests Friday.
Some Republicans have argued that the preponderance of public testimony opposing the bill does not reflect prevailing public opinion on the issue.
“If there was some sort of objective poll, I think that probably most parents would like to be notified. Not all parents would like to be notified, but the majority of parents are more concerned about lack of notification than the possible consequences associated with notification — that’s just a guess,” said North Pole Republican Rep. Mike Prax, who sits on the education committee.
Still, he said that when Allard told the committee she had heard from “thousands” of supporters of the bill, “probably she was just making a point with hyperbole.”
Rep. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat who also serves on the education committee, said Allard’s comments were “really not consistent” with what he had been hearing on the bill.
“I think the testimony that we’ve received is reflective of a lot of Alaska. I also will say that I think the majority of Alaskans are just going about their day-to-day. This isn’t on the top of their minds,” McCormick said.
Sitka independent Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a teacher who sits on the education committee, said “there was passion” from both proponents and opponents of the measure during the public hearings, including when several supporters of the measure said they would pull their kids out of public school if the bill isn’t passed and signed into law.
“When parents feel like the schools aren’t there for them, that’s hard to hear,” said Himschoot. “Parents who called in to say that they felt like their rights were not being honored without this law — I’m not going to argue and say that’s not true. That’s their experience, but I will say that in my own practice as a teacher, I do everything I can to make sure parents are consulted and included.”
Alaska law already protects parents’ rights to review the syllabi of their children and opt out of any content they find objectionable. The law also currently dictates that teachers must notify parents two weeks before teaching any sexual education content and offer parents the ability to opt out.
In testimony submitted on the bill, arguments have often gone beyond the specifics of the bill and touched on the broader debate between those who say schools should protect LGBTQ+ children — particularly when they come from homes that may not support them — and the rights of parents to shelter their children from exposure to content they disapprove of, including instruction on the full spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“The public school is the only place besides the draft where you’re placed into a group of people you didn’t choose to be with,” said Himschoot. “With that in mind, we have to make sure kids and families feel welcome in the public schools, because that is the opportunity for kids and families to be alongside people that they didn’t choose to be with, and learn how to make that work.”
Himschoot added that the number of people who spoke about the fear they feel over the bill — including transgender people and their parents — “might be a sign that this bill is going in the wrong direction.”
McCormick, one of two Democrats who are members of the House majority, said he would vote against the bill, and hoped the committee would take a vote on it rather than setting it aside.
“I would just rather see it voted down than tabled. It’s kind of floating around. That’s not how I think this process should work,” he said.
Prax said one of his biggest takeaways from public testimony was that some educators feel the need to hide certain details about students’ identities from their parents “and that’s not good.” If it came to a vote, Prax said would support advancing the bill out of committee despite the fact that it could put teachers “in an uncomfortable situation.”
If the bill does advance out of the committee — which is composed of four Republicans, three Democrats and an independent — it would then go to the House Judiciary Committee, which would have to hold additional public comment opportunities before voting on advancing the measure to the full House.
Himschoot said she hoped that would not happen.
“Hearing this bill again, after all the hours of public testimony we’ve had, feels like a distraction from the things we need to be doing,” she said. “This bill has gotten a whole lot of attention. It’s time to move on to other things that deserve our attention as well.”