If you believe that bad information leads to bad outcomes, then you’ll vote yes on Referendum 90 — a bill that puts better information about health, relationships and sex in front of Washington’s school children.
In a perfect world, young people would have access to the best possible information about relationships and sexual health.
Nobody wants to be bullied.
Nobody wants to be abused.
Nobody wants to face an unwanted pregnancy too early in life.
The question is: What is the best source of that information?
Hands down, the home.
But some, if not many, parents either lack the capacity or even the desire to engage in those uncomfortable conversations.
Where do kids turn next?
If not their equally ill-informed friends, then certainly the cesspool of social media and the internet.
Since 2007, Washington’s Healthy Youth Act has put forward what a comprehensive sex education program would look like. But it was discretionary. A State Department of Education survey found 64.7 percent compliance among K-5 classrooms, 86.1 percent in grades sixth through eighth and 75.2 percent in the high school grades.
That can’t come close to being good enough if you’re concerned about stopping child abuse, teen pregnancy or abortions. For instance, 34 percent of all victims younger than 18 were abused before they reached the age of 12.
What emerged this year was a law requiring schools to offer instruction six times during a student’s 13 years in public schools.
It would begin with teaching students in grades K-3 about topics such as how to report bullying and what are acceptable boundaries. From there, lessons would progress in the upper grades to include human development, prevention and how to recognize violence.
This is not a one-size-fits all mandate coming down from Olympia.
For parents, there are at least three safeguards.
They can opt to remove their children from the classes.
At least 30 days in advance, they can review the curriculum.
And the state is not imposing curriculum. It’s up to the local schools and parents to decide how to best meet the state’s parameters.
For all that, however, the politics of this can be daunting.
The measure, Senate Bill 5395, passed on a party-line vote. With the exception of Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, Democrats voted yes, Republicans voted no. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee signed it into law.
With a few exceptions, the west side voted yes; lawmakers representing eastern Washington voted no.
After that, a robust petition movement collected more than 264,000 signatures to put the measure up for a vote. The drive behind Referendum 90 was the most successful in four decades.
The question is simple: Vote yes and SB 5395 remains on the books; vote no and it’s repealed.
And it means Washington will become the first state to decide whether to approve a sex education program by a direct vote of the people rather than through the Legislature.
The public may be more united on this issue than their politicians.
For instance, a 2019 Planned Parenthood poll found 86 percent of Washington voters supported “medically accurate, age appropriate, comprehensive sex education in public schools.”
Earlier this year, a Crosscut-Elway poll found 54 percent of voters in eastern and rural Washington in favor of comprehensive sex education in the public schools.
Should any issue passed along partisan and regional divisions be imposed statewide?
To say no assumes there is a pathway toward forging a bipartisan, statewide consensus on this or any issue.
Maybe there is. Maybe there is not. But the longer you wait to achieve it, the more bad outcomes you tolerate in the meantime.
The 2012 campaign to pass marriage equality in Washington offers one precedent. That year, with only a handful of Republican votes, Democrats in the Legislature passed a same-sex marriage law. Opponents rushed out with Referendum 74. That November, same-sex marriage prevailed by a 53.7 percent margin.
With the passage of eight years, people may be asking themselves what all the fuss was about.
Now as then, time is on the side of those who vote yes.— M.T.