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Referendum 90 passed: What’s next for school districts and its opponents?

Although Referendum 90, which would require comprehensive sex education in Washington public schools, passed easily statewide, it failed in Spokane County. Voters in the city of Spokane heavily backed it while voters in Spokane Valley and surrounding areas largely opposed it.  (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
Although Referendum 90, which would require comprehensive sex education in Washington public schools, passed easily statewide, it failed in Spokane County. Voters in the city of Spokane heavily backed it while voters in Spokane Valley and surrounding areas largely opposed it. (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – With the passage of Referendum 90, the controversial sex ed ballot measure that passed by large margins in Tuesday’s Washington election, public schools will now be required to teach comprehensive sex ed multiple times throughout a student’s K-12 education.

School districts will begin phasing in the new requirements in the 2021-22 school year, but for opponents of the bill, the fight is still not over.

Some on social media have talked about pulling their children out of public schools, either for homeschooling or private education. Others have decided to focus their energy on Initiative 1109, another sex ed ballot measure currently in the signature-gathering process.

The number of voters who approved the measure was just a bit over 16 percentage points more than those rejecting it, as of Sunday. School districts will begin phasing in the new requirements in the 2021-22 school year, but for opponents of the bill, the fight is still not over.

Anniece Barker, a Spokane resident who opposed R-90, said she hopes parents are able to make the most informed decisions for their children.

“I consider this a win in a lot of ways,” Barker said Wednesday. “In six months’ time, we were able to educate people on what’s coming to their districts and what choices they have.”

Throughout the campaign, misinformation was floated about what exactly would change with the law. Supporters have said not much is changing in most school districts. Instead, they argued, the bill would allow for more inclusive, age-appropriate sex ed that would keep kids safer and healthier.

Courtney Normand of Planned Parenthood said she wasn’t surprised by the large margin of victory, adding it’s been clear for a long time how voters feel about sex ed.

“This is about the human rights and dignity of young people,” she said Tuesday. “They are deserving of honesty and inclusion.”

Opponents argued that the bill takes away local and parental control and disagreed with what they called “graphic” curricula. The referendum passed mostly in Western Washington counties and failed mostly in Eastern Washington counties, signaling to opponents the importance of local control. As of Sunday, R-90 was failing in all counties east of the Cascades with the exception of Walla Walla and Whitman.

The bill allows school districts to choose or design their own curriculum, and for parents to opt their children out. The curriculum also must be age-appropriate, and children in kindergarten through third grade must only be taught social-emotional learning, according to the bill.

School districts’ roles moving forwardThe biggest change with R-90 is that every public school in Washington will now be required to provide sexual health education. That education must be inclusive and age-appropriate, according to the bill.

The curriculum must include:

  • The physiological, psychological and sociological developmental processes experienced by an individual.
  • The development of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills to communicate and choose healthy behaviors.
  • Health care and prevention resources.
  • The development of meaningful relationships and avoidance of exploitative relationships.
  • Understanding of the influences of family, peers, community and the media throughout life on healthy sexual relationships.
  • Affirmative consent and recognizing and responding safely and effectively when violence, or a risk of violence, is or may be present, with strategies that include bystander training.

It also requires sex ed to be taught in multiple grade bands: once in kindergarten through third grade, once in grades 4-5, twice in grades 6-8 and twice in grades 9-12.

Students in kindergarten through third grade must have social-emotional learning that is consistent with standards set by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, according to the bill.

In OSPI guidelines, social-emotional learning teaches how to identify and express feelings, how to achieve goals and how to act responsibly when interacting with others, among other guidelines.

The Spokesman-Review reviewed curricula at public school districts in Spokane and found many districts wouldn’t have to change much.

For those that do have to make major changes, OSPI – which is tasked in the bill with assisting school districts – has laid out what comes next.

Beginning in the 2020-21 school year, schools already teaching comprehensive sex ed must ensure they follow the new guidelines.

Schools that are not teaching it must begin preparing to incorporate it by consulting with parents, local communities and the Washington State School Directors’ Association.

OSPI encourages school districts to use curricula they have already reviewed, but will provide review tools to districts who choose another one, according to their site.

In the 2021-22 school year, schools must begin teaching comprehensive sex ed twice in grades 6-8 and twice in grades 9-12.

By the 2022-23 school year, all schools must provide social-emotional learning to kindergarten through third grade and comprehensive sex ed once in fourth or fifth grade.

Opponents look to other optionsAcross social media, opponents of R-90 have begun discussing what comes next. Some say they will begin to home school their children in response. Others are joining the fight for a new sex ed initiative.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, wrote in an email that those against the bill are disappointed and thinking about what course of action to take. Padden has long opposed the measure.

“People are talking about their options, about what’s appropriate for them,” Barker said. “Regardless, those families are going to have an impact on their classrooms, and that’s a win.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who also prevailed Tuesday in his campaign for re-election, said he wasn’t worried about the number of people leaving the public school system.

Families will learn the facts, he said, and they’ll make the best decision for them.

“I want families to make the best choice for themselves,” he said.

The state may see another fight over sex ed with Initiative 1109, an initiative to the 2021 Legislature.

The initiative would repeal existing sex ed law, regardless of the outcome of R-90, said sponsor Georgene Faries of Arlington. It would limit opt-in sexual health education to grades five through 12 and require school districts to implement publicly available, developmentally suitable curricula consistent with parental values.

Faries said the curriculum must be “able to be viewed on TV without a disclaimer,” something she does not think current curricula could do.

It would also promote prevention skills and boundaries in relationships, she added.

“We want common-sense sex ed and we want it actually age-appropriate,” she said.

Barker called the initiative a “risk-avoidance curriculum” instead of a “risk-prevention curriculum,” meaning it would focus on not having sex, instead of how to have sex safely.

Even under R-90, however, abstinence must be taught as the only way to completely avoid pregnancy or diseases spread through sexual activity.

The initiative has until 5 p.m. Dec. 31 to receive at least 259,622 valid signatures of registered voters. The Secretary of State’s office recommends submitting 325,000 total signatures.

If it gets enough, it will be submitted to the Legislature, which then has three choices: adopt the initiative as proposed without a vote of the people; reject or refuse to act on it, sending it to the ballot in the next general election; or propose a different measure with the same subject and place both measures on the next general election ballot.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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