Washington’s controversial Referendum 90, explained

Sean Gannon, News Editor

Washington voters will soon decide whether a comprehensive sexual health education mandate will be enacted into law.

Senate Bill 5395 — passed by the Legislature along party lines in March — requires public schools to provide comprehensive sexual health education to students in 6–12 grades beginning in the 2021-22 school year, and K–5 beginning in 2022.

If ratified, school districts would choose their curriculum from an approved list or create their own materials, provided they meet the law’s parameters.

In K-3, curricula would focus on social and emotional learning (SEL), 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,” as defined by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Lessons would progress through grades 4–12 with subjects including human development, communication, healthy relationships, influences on sexual relationships, recognizing and responding to sexual violence and affirmative consent. Lessons must also address issues faced by LGBTQ students.

Opponents say the bill is an affront to local and parental control, inappropriately sexualizes children at a young age, and pushes a state-sanctioned moral framework. 

Parents for Safe Schools, a Washington state group funded by Republican leaders, is leading the opposition. The group marshaled 264,000 signatures, the most signatures to overturn a Legislature-approved law in the last four decades. Two-thirds of signatures reportedly came from church sites.

“Olympia should prioritize improving literacy and helping students graduate, not creating an expensive, new mandate,” Parents for Safe Schools said on their website. “The bill means unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats, not local communities, will develop statewide sex education standards for our children.”

The bill requires that schools notify parents when they are providing sex education and make all course materials accessible to parents. Parents can file with the school district or school’s principal to excuse their child from the sex education instruction, but opponents aren’t assuaged.

“Parents can opt their children out of classroom instruction,” the Walla Walla Catholic Parishes said in a statement, “but they cannot opt them out of schoolyard discussions and the culture change that may take place at school as the result of comprehensive sexual health education.”

Proponents of the bill say it ensures age-appropriate information and resources so students make good decisions about sex and relationships and keep themselves and others safe.

“This is about making sure younger children know what kind of touching is inappropriate, whether by peers or predators,” Democratic State Senator and bill sponsor Claire Wilson said in a statement. “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.” 

Proponents of a comprehensive sexual health model, including the National Association of School Nurses and the Washington ACLU, point to a large body of research that suggests these curricula are tied to better health outcomes among students — including reductions in sexually-transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies.

Those looking to affirm SB 5395 at the ballot box have trounced their opponents in fundraising. Planned Parenthood-affiliated groups have contributed nearly $600,000 to approve Referendum 90, more than a third of the $1.5 million supporters have raised overall. In contrast, opponents have raised just $375,000 in total, with more than $40,000 from the Republican Party’s Reagan Fund.

Should Referendum 90 get a majority of votes on November’s ballot, SB 5359 will replace the existing law that does not require school districts to teach sexual health education. A state survey found that just 19 of Washington’s 294 school districts currently forgo sex education altogether, but the quality of sex education is unclear. The survey of nearly 9,000 eighth-graders in 2018  found that two-thirds of them had been taught about abstinence and other ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

SB 5359 would impose a statewide standard and require those 19 school districts to incorporate a comprehensive sexual health model into their curriculum.

Currently, about 30 states require public schools to teach sexual health education. But Washington will be the first state to test its Legislature’s decision with a referendum pertaining to sex education on the ballot.