The House Education Committee advanced a sex education opt-in bill Tuesday morning , in the face of strong opposition and a divisive, charged hearing.
Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, pushed House Bill 249. If passed, the bill would require parents to sign permission slips specifically opting their children into sex education or any discussion of sexuality that goes beyond strict limits of anatomy and the physiology of human reproduction.
Ehardt said the bill is all about giving parents say over the education their children receive.
“This is about consent, it’s not about content,” Ehardt said.
But opponents said the bill’s passage would result in countless students not being taught about sexually transmitted disease, sexual assault, consent, safe sex or gender identity.
This is the third consecutive year that Ehardt has pushed a sex ed opt-in bill. Two years ago, her bill passed the House, but the Senate Education Committee killed it. Last year, Ehardt introduced a rewritten bill that did not advance.
Ehardt made several changes from the first bill two years ago. In this year’s bill, she added a definition of human sexuality that Ehardt said she got from the World Health Organization.
During more than an hour of testimony, accepted both in-person and remotely from across the state, only one person spoke in favor of the bill. Everyone else who spoke opposed the bill, while the Idaho School Boards Association asked legislators to send it out for amendments.
ISBA policy and government affairs director Quinn Perry told legislators the bill could conflict with new Title IX regulations addressing sexual harassment and intimidation.
Nearly a dozen high school students testified remotely, saying they want students to have access to comprehensive, medically accurate sex education. Many said they worry their friends aren’t getting this information from parents or at school and turn to other sources for information.
“For teenagers to make the most informed decisions we need the sufficient resources and competent teaching about becoming sexually active,” Timberline High School sophomore Jessica Rice said. “As a result of this bill, lawmakers would leave teenagers without the adequate knowledge to make decisions that will keep them happy, healthy and safe.”
When presenting the bill, Ehardt made multiple statements that were either inaccurate or she did not cite specific examples or evidence. Those statements ranged from inaccurately listing Arizona as a state that borders Idaho to telling legislators that teachers read “storybooks” to first-graders that teach children they can change their gender and teach children about sexual pleasure and masturbation.
“When left to the devices of teachers, we are finding out a lot of strange things are happening at these schools, starting as early as kindergarten and first grade,” Ehardt said.
“It’s teaching 22 or more genders, it’s starting in kindergarten, it’s going through first grade and it’s so much more than this,” Ehardt added.
At one point, Ehardt drew shouts of objection after claiming the National Education Association teachers union was pushing this agenda.
Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, jumped in to ask Ehardt to identify the sources she was reading from. Ehardt said, “You know what, I’m paraphrasing from other things that I have read.”
Near the end of the hearing, Rep. John McCrostie, D-Garden City, asked Ehardt if any of the incidents she mentioned have happened in Idaho.
Ehardt said problems have been documented in other states.
“This is something expected to come to Idaho, there are some semblances of it in Idaho,” Ehardt said.
Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, said the young people who testified against the bill convinced him even more that the opt-in requirements are necessary.
“There are still hundreds and probably thousands of families in Idaho who hold a more traditional view of sex, sexual relations and sexuality,” Marshall said. “For them, the words sexual purity and chastity still have very important and, yes, even sacred meaning. It means that sexual relations are to be reserved for, and only expressed in the bonds of, a legal and lawful marriage between a husband a wife.”
All three committee Democrats opposed the bill while all 12 Republicans supported it.
“Contrary to Rep. Ehardt’s claim, this bill is not about parental consent,” Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said in a statement Tuesday. “It is about fear — fear of inflammatory content that no student in Idaho is being taught.”
House Bill 249 next heads to the House floor with a recommendation it passes.
Now in her third term, Ehardt has pushed a legislative agenda dominated by gender and sexuality issues. In addition to the three sex ed opt-in bills, she sponsored the controversial law banning transgender women and girls from participating in women’s sports.
‘Social justice education’ and mask mandates
The House State Affairs Committee introduced a pair of proposals Tuesday — both with an education nexus.
‘Social justice education’ resolution. Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, continued her pushback against higher education. This time, she unveiled a resolution that would seek to defund colleges and universities that pursue social justice programs.
Her resolution would call on cutting budgets commensurate with college and university spending on social justice initiatives.
“Students cannot avoid exposure to social justice education,” Giddings’ resolution reads, in part.
In her resolution, Giddings criticizes colleges and universities for furloughing employees during the coronavirus pandemic, while “hiring new activists” to advance a divisive social agenda.
Asked for numbers by State Affairs Chairman Brent Crane, R-Nampa, Giddings said she could only guess at the fiscal impacts of campus hiring decisions, but promised to provide the committee a followup report.
The resolution could come back to House State Affairs for a full hearing at a later date. The committee voted to introduce the proposal, but narrowly rejected a motion to send the resolution directly to the House floor for a quicker vote.
Earlier this session, Giddings introduced a bill to split Idaho’s higher education budget into four bills — one for each four-year institution. That bill has been assigned to the House Appropriations Committee, which hasn’t held a hearing on it.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will meet Wednesday to write up budget bills for Idaho’s four-year colleges and universities and its two-year community colleges.
Mask mandates. House State Affairs introduced a bill that would prohibit public entities from requiring people to wear face masks.
The language wouldn’t apply to private businesses. However, it would apply to public schools and colleges and universities, which have routinely mandated face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.
Schools have other methods of preventing the spread of disease, such as quarantining or isolation, said Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, the bill’s sponsor.
“If we’re sick, we need to use common sense and stay at home,” she said.
The bill could come back to the committee for a full hearing at a later date.
Senate passes expulsion bill
The Senate unanimously endorsed a bill to give school boards some discretion over school expulsions.
Senate Bill 1116 would repeal Idaho’s zero-tolerance policy for some weapons violations — involving items such as knives. Under current state law, school board must expel a student who brings a knife to school.
The state’s zero-tolerance policy would remain in place for firearm violations.
With Tuesday’s 35-0 Senate vote, SB 1116 goes to the House.
House passes Ybarra’s in-person learning bill
The House quickly passed Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s in-person learning bill late Tuesday afternoon.
House Bill 175 encourages schools to the greatest extent possible to be open for in-person learning during an emergency where safety requirements can be developed.
Ybarra said she began working on the bill after hearing from parents who were frustrated with the school closures, disruptions and hybrid learning models caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Ybarra said she believes it’s the most important education bill legislators will consider all year.
But she ran into opposition inside and outside the Statehouse. A group of school superintendents expressed concerns with an early version of the proposal and House Education killed the initial draft bill when it was up for introduction Feb. 8.
But Ybarra regrouped and rewrote the bill.
Legislators have said the bill represents a strong statement in support of in-person learning but it may not have a lot of teeth to it.
Ultimately, the House quietly passed the bill 55-14 with little discussion or debate. HB 175 heads next the Sente for consideration.
Idaho Education News covered Tuesday’s hearings remotely.