Referendum 90 on Washington 2020 ballot asks voters to approve or reject comprehensive sexual health education in public schools

On June 24, the Washington Secretary of State’s office found that Parents for Safe Schools, proponents of Referendum 90, had submitted enough valid signatures to qualify the measure for the 2020 ballot.

Referendum 90 asks voters to approve or reject Washington Senate Bill 5395, which was designed to require comprehensive sexual health education in public schools.

A vote to approve Referendum 90 would allow SB 5395 to go into effect. A vote to reject this referendum would repeal Senate Bill 5395. The bill is on hold pending 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 (defined as “a conscious and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity as a requirement before sexual activity”) and bystander training.

Parents for Safe Schools sponsored the referendum measure in an attempt to repeal SB 5395. In a random sample check of 7,940 signatures submitted by the group, the secretary of state’s office found that 7,186 signatures were valid, projecting a signature validity rate of 90.5%. This means that of 264,637 signatures submitted by proponents, 239,496 were deemed valid through the random sample verification. To qualify for the ballot, 129,811 valid signatures were required.

Senate Bill 5395 was sponsored by Senator Claire Wilson (D), vice-chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee. SB 5395 was passed in the state House on March 4 with Democrats voting in favor and Republicans voting against. SB 5395 passed in the Senate largely along party lines on March 7, 2020, with one Democrat, Tim Sheldon, joining all Senate Republicans in voting no. Governor Jay Inslee (D) signed the bill into law on March 27, 2020.

Under SB 5395, comprehensive sexual health education means “recurring instruction in human development and reproduction that is age-appropriate and inclusive of all students.” The bill would require course materials to be verified or supported by scientific research, published in peer-reviewed journals, and 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.

Comprehensive sexual health education for students in grades K-3 would need to be taught as instruction in social and emotional learning (SEL). Social and emotional learning is defined by the Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction as “a process through which individuals build awareness and skills in managing emotions, setting goals, establishing relationships, and making responsible decisions that support success in school and in life.” 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.

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. The bill would require school officials to grant such a request.

Parents for Safe Schools said, “As parents, we have a responsibility to protect our children from inappropriate, ideology-based curriculum. This bill was passed late in the session with very little opportunity for ordinary citizens to testify and no amendments accepted. Parents and their local school boards deserve a voice in controversial curriculum decisions and many districts cannot afford an expensive, unfunded mandate.” As of June 21, Parents for Safe Schools had raised $178,846. The largest donor to the committee was The Reagan Fund, which gathers contributions for the Washington State House Republican Leadership PAC, and which gave $25,000 to Parents for Safe Schools.

Senator Claire Wilson (D), sponsor of Senate Bill 5395 and vice-chair of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, 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. […] There are children who will be targeted for molestation in the coming year, there are young women who may face sexual coercion or assault. They need access to information and lessons that will enable them to make decisions to ensure their health and safety.”

Since the first in 1914, Washington voters have decided 38 statewide veto referendum measures at the ballot. The most recent veto referendum was on the ballot in Washington in 2019, when voters rejected Initiative 1000, an affirmative action-related measure approved by the legislature. In 81.6% of veto referendums (31 of 38), voters repealed the targeted bill. Conversely, in 18.4% (seven of 37) of veto referendums, voters upheld the targeted law.

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