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Referendum 90 asks Washington voters to weigh in on the state's new sex education law

Gracie Anderson, a senior at Pacific Lutheran University, testified in support of the bill requiring comprehensive sexual health education to be taught in public schools.
Courtesy of TVW
Gracie Anderson, a senior at Pacific Lutheran University, testified in support of the bill requiring comprehensive sexual health education to be taught in public schools.

The Nov. 3 election in Washington includes a referendum on a hot-button issue — whether the state should require sex education to be taught in public schools.

KNKX youth and education reporter Ashley Gross spoke with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about Referendum 90 and what opponents and supporters have to say.

Listen to their conversation above, or read a transcript below. 

Kirsten Kendrick, Morning Edition host: Why is this on the ballot?

Ashley Gross, youth and education reporter: This is on the ballot because a lot of people were upset over action at the state Capitol. Lawmakers passed a sex ed bill earlier this year. It would require that school districts teach what’s known as comprehensive sexual health education. Comprehensive sex ed means lessons about human development and reproduction. It’s supposed to be age appropriate, medically accurate and inclusive of all students, for example, young people who identify as LGBTQ. For the youngest kids, the lessons are not about sex or contraception — the instruction is about social-emotional development.  

Kendrick: So what would Referendum 90 do if it passes?

Gross: It would allow the law requiring comprehensive sex ed to go into effect. But if enough people vote against it, things would stay the same. School districts could choose to teach sex ed, but would not be required to. Right now a large majority of school districts teach sex ed to students in at least one grade.

Kendrick: So why is this so controversial?

Gross: Anytime you talk about kids and sex, it’s bound to be controversial. And a lot of people chafed at this being a state mandate. This is the issue that prompted Maia Espinoza to run for state superintendent of public instruction against Chris Reykdal. She says this should be up to local school boards and if parents really want sex ed to be taught, they can advocate for it at the district level.

Kendrick: I thought the law included a way for parents to opt their kids out of the lessons.

Gross: You’re right, it does. It also says parents have the right to review the curriculum. But one mom in Tacoma, Allison Verhofstadt, says opting kids out of the instruction can make them vulnerable to bullying. And that’s not her only objection.

Allison Verhofstadt: Even if I opt my kid out, my kid’s going to at lunch be like, 'Oh, what did you learn at sex ed today?’ And then they’re going to hear the information from a fellow 14-year-old instead of the teacher. I feel like opting out a kid is really nice to put on a website or on the bill, when you actually look at it, it’s very difficult and nearly impossible to opt your children out of all the things you might want to opt out of.

Kendrick: Is she generally opposed to sex ed?

Gross: No, she says she’s not, but she takes issue with some of the curricula. One of her concerns is that some lessons have students look things up on the web and she says that could easily lead them to pornography.

Kendrick: What have you heard from supporters of the sex ed law?

Gross: One young woman I spoke with is Gracie Anderson. She’s a senior at Pacific Lutheran University and student body president. She testified to the Legislature in support of the bill. She told me that she attended schools in Olympia.

Gracie Anderson: My sex ed was not comprehensive. I identify as queer, and I definitely did not have queer-inclusive sex ed. That means that a lot of those gaps had to be filled through self-teaching and conversations with friends. It’s just perfect for misinformation and confusion when you’re not learning it in a classroom.

Gross: Gracie says she’s seen on her college campus that some students arrive with very little knowledge of sex ed and the basics of consent. The state’s sex ed bill requires that schools teach what’s known as affirmative consent. That means before people engage in sex, they have to give conscious and voluntary agreement.

Kendrick: There’s been a lot of talk in the campaign about how kids are going to be exposed to graphic images. What’s the basis for that?

Gross: The opponents dug through the curricula that have been reviewed by state agencies and listed on the OSPI website. They’ve dug through books listed as reference materials for parents and found one book that has cartoon illustrations showing a couple having sex. That book is not part of any classroom lesson but the very existence of the images has been used by opponents to stir up controversy and fear about the sex ed law.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.