Proponents of a veto referendum in Washington file signatures to repeal a bill requiring comprehensive sexual health education in public schools

Parents for Safe Schools, sponsors of Referendum 90, submitted 266,000 signatures to the Washington Secretary of State’s office on Wednesday. To qualify the referendum for the November ballot,129,811 of the signatures must be valid.

Referendum 90 petitioners seek to repeal Senate Bill 5395, which was signed by Governor Jay Inslee (D) on March 27, 2020. Senate Bill 3395, sponsored by Senator Claire Wilson (D), vice-chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, was passed in the State House on March 4 along party lines with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans voting against. It passed in the Senate along party lines on March 7, except one Democrat, Tim Sheldon, joined all Senate Republicans in voting no. The bill is on hold pending the verification of signatures, and if placed on the ballot, the result of the election.

Senate Bill 5395 would require public schools to provide comprehensive sexual health education to students in grades 6-12 beginning in the 2021-22 school year and for all public school students, including those in grades K-5, beginning in the 2022-23 school year. The curriculum would have to include instruction and information regarding affirmative consent and bystander training. Sexual health education would need to be provided at least once to students in grades K-3, once to students in grades 4-5, twice to students in grades 6-8, and twice to students in grades 9-12. Sexual health education would not be required to be integrated into unrelated subjects or courses.

Under SB 5395, comprehensive sexual health education means “recurring instruction in human development and reproduction that is age-appropriate and inclusive of all students.” Course materials would need to be medically and scientifically accurate, meaning the information has been verified or supported by scientific research, has been published in peer-reviewed journals, and is recognized as accurate by organizations such as the Washington State Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Under the bill, schools would be required to notify parents that they are providing comprehensive sexual health education and make all course materials accessible to the parents. Parents could file a written request with the school district or the school’s principal to excuse their child from sexual health education instruction. School districts would be required to grant such requests.

SB 5395 sponsor Sen. Claire Wilson (D) said, “Some people hear the words ‘sex education’ and mistake the focus of the curriculum, which is health and safety, and is age-appropriate for each grade level. This is about making sure younger children know what kind of touching is inappropriate, whether by peers or predators. It’s about helping older students recognize and resist abusive or coercive behavior. It’s about teaching all children to respect diversity and not to bully others. Students need a safe place to ask questions, to fully understand consent, and to have the information they need to make safe decisions.”

Parents for Safe Schools said SB 5395 “mandates graphic sex education starting in elementary school” and “orders school districts to ‘comprehensively’ include sex ed in all curriculum — including math, social studies, science, business and computer classes. … Keep the Olympia activists out of our classrooms. Parents and elected local school boards should be the only people deciding what is taught in our classrooms.”

The Washington State Catholic Conference, which opposes SB 5395, said, “The law requires ‘affirmative consent curriculum’ defined as ‘a conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity as a requirement before sexual activity.’ This requirement is not in accordance with church teaching that sexual activity be reserved for marriage. Parents can opt their children out of classroom instruction, but they cannot opt them out of school yard discussions and the culture change that may take place at school.”

Parents for Safe Schools had raised $158,903 according to the most recent reports available on June 11, 2020. The largest donor was The Reagan Fund, which is the name of the Washington State House Republican Leadership PAC.

Since the first in 1914, Washington voters have decided 38 statewide veto referendum measures at the ballot. Opponents of laws targeted for repeal collect signatures for veto referendum petitions hoping that voters will repeal the laws at the ballot. The most recent veto referendum, Referendum 88, was on the ballot in Washington in 2019. Voters rejected the targeted law, Initiative 1000. In 81.6% of cases (31 of 38), veto referendums resulted in the targeted bill being repealed. Conversely, 18.4% (seven of 37) of veto referendum measures resulted in the targeted law being upheld.

Between 1906 and 2019, 522 veto referendums appeared on the ballot in 23 states. Voters repealed 341 (65.3%) of the targeted laws. Voters upheld 181 (34.7 percent) of the targeted laws. The states with the most veto referendums were North Dakota (75), Oregon (68), and California (48).
Additional reading:
How many veto referendums have there been in Washington?
List of veto referendum ballot measures