A bill proposed by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy to limit sexual education passed its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday, after lawmakers significantly amended the bill.
The measure, which garnered widespread opposition from LGBTQ rights advocates, was originally written by the governor to ban all sex education before fourth grade, and require written parental permission for students to participate in any sex-education classes beginning in fourth grade — similar to a Florida law dubbed by opponents “don’t say gay.”
In a hearing on Wednesday, the Alaska House Education Committee adopted an amended version of the bill that removed all mentions of sexual education and gender, instead requiring parents to sign off in writing for a student to participate in any class or activity, regardless of subject matter. The only exception is for lessons pertaining to sexual assault and dating violence training and prevention programs, which would not require parental permission.
The amended bill was authored by House Education Co-Chair Justin Ruffridge, a Soldotna Republican who previously opposed parts of the governor’s bill. Dunleavy supports the amended version of the bill, according to his spokesman, Jeff Turner.
Ruffridge said the committee substitute clarifies in “a larger capacity” that “parents have rights on everything.” His support allowed the bill to advance out of committee in a 4-3 vote, with all committee Republicans in favor of the bill, and two Democrats and one independent opposed. The measure heads next to the House Judiciary Committee.
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“The (bill) is no longer targeting any one group and for that I am grateful. It has become something that is completely undoable, but it doesn’t target a group of people,” said Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a Sitka independent who sits on the committee.
Ruffridge said the bill is meant to allow parents to review all curriculum periodically — a few times per year — rather than every day or week. But opponents of the bill said it would take flexibility away from teachers or force them to continuously gather permission slips from parents as lesson plans change and evolve.
“What it does is it robs professional educators of the teachable moment. So, if something comes up that’s topical on that day or in that week and the teacher can’t pivot and embrace that topical moment, because it wasn’t announced to the parents, then we have absolutely squelched academic freedom,” said Himschoot, who is also a school teacher.
Even if the bill gains traction in the Republican-dominated House, it faces slim odds in the Senate, which is controlled by a bipartisan coalition that has vowed to steer away from controversial issues. A version of the governor’s bill introduced in the Senate was referred to the judiciary committee, and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.
“The Senate leadership has certainly indicated that this particular legislation is not a high priority for the Senate,” said Sen. Matt Claman, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the judiciary committee, adding that he had not yet determined if the bill would be scheduled for a hearing before the legislative session ends next month.
Sen. Löki Tobin, an Anchorage Democrat who chairs the education committee, said the parental permission requirement for every class and activity would come at a significant cost to schools, which would have to develop “almost real time” notification systems to let parents know when there are last-minute changes to activities or classes.
“With regards to the underlying bill, the premise of the bill — I still reject the idea that parents don’t have rights in our school system, that parents don’t have the ability to be active participants in their child’s education,” said Tobin.
Some education advocates shared the concerns raised by Himschoot and Tobin over the impact of the new version of the bill.
“I think there was an effort there to maybe just make it so broad that it would be general and we wouldn’t get hung up on the gender issues. But unfortunately, that’s not going to work for school districts,” said Lon Garrison, executive director of the Alaska Association of School Boards, who also said the bill as it is now worded would be “a huge lift for school districts” and “just not practical.”
The governor’s original bill also banned transgender students from using single-sex facilities according to the gender with which they identify. The amended version does not include that prohibition, but does require school districts to provide single-occupancy facilities.
Ensuring that every school building has single-use bathrooms, Garrison said, would be a major expense at a time when districts are already struggling to cover the cost of maintaining their facilities.
The House Education Committee adopted a separate amendment to the bill proposed by Himschoot, to add a small amount of funding to schools to cover the costs associated with the measure. That amendment would translate to roughly $6 million annually — divided between hundreds of schools across the state.
“If we’re going to keep adding things, then we have to start helping the schools meet the requirements of what we’re asking them to do,” said Himschoot.
The bill still includes provisions that LGBTQ advocates have said could potentially harm children whose parents don’t support their gender or sexual identity. Those would require schools to share students’ full medical record with their parents, and would require parental sign-off for students who want to use a name or pronouns other than those assigned to them at birth. Of the hundreds of opponents who called in to testify about the original bill, many said those provisions could put already vulnerable transgender students — who face high rates of suicide — at greater risk.
“Suicide prevention activists have identified this legislation as a problem and have come before us and told us that this will in all likelihood lead to higher rates of suicide. I do not believe enough has been changed with this bill to make me feel like we are not still continuing down that pathway,” said Rep. CJ McCormick, a Bethel Democrat, before voting against the bill.
“This bill makes life harder for people, and I can tell you — as a kid who graduated in 2015 from rural Alaska — life is very hard, and I ran to make life easier for those kids. This bill does not do that, so I can never support something like this,” said McCormick, who is the youngest member of the Legislature.
Supporters of the measure, meanwhile, said the new version made progress toward empowering parents in Alaska — some of whom say they don’t have control over their child’s education despite existing state statutes that allow parents to review curriculum and pull their child out of any class or activity they find objectionable.
“Parents are imperfect but we are here to help, not to mandate. It is our responsibility as the state or the public school to keep the parents engaged and we are here to help them, not replace them,” said Rep. Mike Prax, a North Pole Republican who voted for the bill.
House Education Committee Co-Chair Jaime Allard, who has championed the bill since its introduction, said in a written statement that even now that the bill has advanced out of the House Education Committee, there is still “a lot of work to amend” it. She did not elaborate on the kinds of amendments she still sought.
The House Education Committee also voted Wednesday to advance a separate education bill introduced by the governor that would provide bonuses to teachers ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 per year, depending on whether the teacher works in an urban or rural school district. The bonuses would be paid for the coming three school years, at a cost of $57 million per year. The bill heads next to the House Finance Committee.
Some Republican House members have said they favor the teacher bonuses over a separate measure to increase the funding formula for public education, which has remained stagnant since 2017. Efforts to increase the Base Student Allocation, moving separately in the House and Senate, have encountered headwinds from opponents who say the state lacks the funds to send to schools and have questioned the efficacy of funding increases.
Amendments introduced by Himschoot to make the annual teacher bonus permanent or extend it to all professionals working in schools — including aides and librarians — failed along party lines, with all four committee Republicans opposed.
An identical bill in the Senate has yet to advance out of the education committee, where Tobin, who chairs the committee, has championed a permanent increase to the school funding formula at an annual cost of $257 million.
Tobin said Wednesday she hopes the governor’s bill is “amended to ensure that we’re actually producing the best piece of legislation that really does incentivize educators to stay for the long term and not just for three years.”
Anchorage Daily News reporter Sean Maguire contributed to this report.