DENVER–The House passed legislation Friday offering grants to school districts that expand their K-12 sex-education curriculum to include gays, lesbians, transgendered, sexual-assault victims and others.
The 37-28 party-line vote came after an hour of emotionally charged debate as Republicans pleaded for Democrats to join them in opposing the bill. The legislation, House Bill 1081, now goes to the Senate.
“For the residents of Colorado who are learning about the bill and are concerned, understand the consequences of elections,” said state Rep. Chris Holbert (R-Parker). “Thirty-seven is more than 28, and unfortunately, much of this decision was made in November of 2012.”
Republicans argued that the state already has comprehensive sex education in schools covering issues such as teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and that beyond that, parents should be charged with deciding when to have those conversations.
Several Democrats countered that parents are often either uninformed or uncomfortable with sex-related subject matter.
“What’s happening today is parents are so afraid of this topic. They’re uninformed. They’re ignorant about it,” said state Rep. Sue Schafer (D-Wheat Ridge). “I think it’s the responsible thing for us to do to pass this bill, put this information in the hands of professional teachers.”
Democrats emphasized that school districts must first decide whether to seek the comprehensive sex-education grants. Once a district has received grant money, parents may then elect to opt their children out of the program.
“I don’t believe that people who are not in favor of HB 1081 would want to deny some of my school districts or some of our school districts who want this in their schools to not have it, just as I wouldn’t want to force the program in any of the school districts that don’t choose to have the program,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner (D-Frisco).
State Rep. Lori Saine (R-Dacono) cited a Zogby International survey showing that 88 percent of parents opposed comprehensive sex education when they were told it included topics such as “think of a sexual fantasy using condoms” and ” tell your partner how a condom can make a man last longer” for students ages 12 to 15.
Even with the opt-out provision, the state is asking for lawsuits, given that parents sometimes miss paperwork and emails from the schools, said state Rep. Lois Landgraf (R-Fountain).
“Their children will participate in these programs, and at some point they will come home, they will tell their parents what they’ve been learning in school, and parents are going to be very upset, and parents are going to sue,” said Landgraf. “They’ll sue the schools, they’ll sue the districts, they’ll sue the state, they’ll sue everybody they can.”
The bill is intended to include students “whose experiences have traditionally been left out of sexual health education,” including “communities of color; immigrant communities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities; people with physical or intellectual disabilities; [and] people who have experienced sexual victimization.”
Debate on the bill Friday lasted only an hour, a far cry from Tuesday’s hard-fought four-hour slugfest pitting the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Crisanta Duran (D-Denver) against its leading critic, state Rep. Amy Stephens (R-Monument).
House Republicans introduced more than a dozen amendments to the 24-page bill, including an exemption for charter schools, a requirement that schools use programs approved by the Centers for Disease Control, the inclusion of parents on the oversight committee, and a ban on special-interest funding for the program.
Stephens argued that previous programs emphasizing sexual risk avoidance, or abstinence, were held to tough oversight standards, but that no such standards were in place for HB 1081.
The CDC outlines four goals for sex-education programs: delay the start of sexual activity; reduce multiple sex partners; have students use contraception correctly and consistently, and reduce the frequency of sexual intercourse.
Stephens proposed taking 15 percent of the bill’s funding, as was done with abstinence programs, and using it to evaluate the program based on whether it makes progress on the four CDC criteria.
“If you cannot line up with the CDC on this, then folks, this is a sham,” said Stephens. “If you can’t line up with these four criteria set forth by the CDC, then what are we doing here?”
Duran called Stephens’ proposal unrealistic. “How exactly are you going to track down this information? Are you going to put trackers on these kids to see how many times they engage in sexual activity and with how many people?” said Duran.
Those were the standards demanded by Democrats of abstinence programs, said Stephens. “You asked it of the sexual-risk avoidance groups, you asked them to give 15 percent to do it, I say fair is fair, you should have to do it,” said Stephens.
Her amendment failed, as did nearly every Republican effort to amend the bill. Duran did allow a few amendments to pass, including one to allow a parent on the oversight committee, to be chosen by the CDPHE.
Several Republicans raised concerns about introducing sexually charged material to young children, including kindergarteners. The bill covers grades K-12, although it specifies that the curriculum must be age-appropriate.
“I want you to know there are gay children in kindergarten. They were born that way. They didn’t get infected with anything,” said Schafer, who identified herself as “a gay mother and a gay grandmother.”
Near the end of the debate, state Rep. Stephen Humphrey (R-Severance) said the heart of the disagreement may be that there are “two universes in this state.”
“The problem with this bill is that in my estimation in the name of science and public health, it takes sides,” said Humphrey. “In our state-run public schools, taxpayer-funded public schools, this bill picks winners and losers.”