Senate committee kills sex education ‘opt-in’ bill

An “opt-in” bill for courses in human sexuality is dead for the session.

On a 5-4 vote, the Senate Education Committee rejected House Bill 249, which would have given parents the right to opt their children into classes on sexuality.

Under the current law, which remains in place despite Wednesday’s vote, local school districts decide on curriculum in sex education and human sexuality. Parents have the right to opt children out of classes on sex education.

HB 249 would not have changed the opt-out language on sex ed — on discussions of the physiology of sex. But the bill would have added opt-in language for discussions on “the topics of sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, eroticism, sexual pleasure, or sexual intimacy.”

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, discusses her sex education “opt-in” bill Wednesday.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said the opt-in language is necessary, as national groups push for more graphic sexual content in the classroom. “It’s about to hit Idaho like you don’t understand,” she said.

The vote, and Wednesday’s testimony and committee debate, centered on questions of parental rights and concerns for children at risk.

“Parents do know their children,” said Sonya Harris, a Blackfoot school trustee, urging the committee to support HB 249.

Calling access to sex education “a basic human right,” licensed social worker Monae Harris urged lawmakers to consider sexual abuse victims — and parents and guardians who might not have the best interest of children in mind.

Committee members were split as well.

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, a Boise Democrat and retired educator, talked about two of her former students who died by suicide, after wrestling with questions of gender identity.

HB 249’s co-sponsor, Senate Education Committee Chairman Steven Thayn, acknowledged that some students face difficult situations, but he argued against a “one-size-fits-all” approach that limits the rights of all parents.

“There’s a balancing issue here,” said Thayn, R-Emmett.

Wednesday’s committee vote represented a stark reversal.

On March 5, HB 249 passed the House on a party-line vote.

In Senate Education, the bill ran into bipartisan opposition. Republicans Carl Crabtree of Grangeville, Dan Johnson of Lewiston and Jim Woodward of Sagle joined Democrats David Nelson of Moscow and Ward-Engelking to kill the bill. Republicans Lori Den Hartog of Meridian and Kevin Cook and Dave Lent of Idaho Falls joined Thayn in support of the bill.

Idaho Education News covered Wednesday’s hearing remotely.

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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