DENVER–The Colorado House is scheduled to take up Friday a bill offering grants to school districts that expand their sex-education curriculum to encompass a host of groups, including gays, lesbians, bisexuals, the transgendered, the disabled, sexual-assault victims and others.
Of course, it might not happen. House Bill 1081 has already been laid over twice after winning preliminary approval Tuesday following a hotly fought floor debate pitting the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Crisanta Duran (D-Denver), against its leading critic, Rep. Amy Stephens (R-Monument).
The bill creates a grant program through the state Department of Public Health and Environment–not the Department of Education–paid for by federal grants as well as unspecified state and private funding. School districts that participate are required to implement an opt-out policy, meaning that students will be included unless their parents act to remove them.
Colorado’s teen pregnancy rate dipped below the national average after lawmakers overhauled and updated the state’s sex-education program in 2007, but Duran insists that more needs to be done, particularly in the state’s poorest counties.
“When we have young women who are on average having 12 children per day, we need to be doing everything we can as a state to give young people tools to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy,” said Duran during Tuesday’s four-hour debate.
She rejected descriptions of the bill as an unfunded mandate, saying that, “What it does is it gives us one more tool in Colorado’s toolbox to enable local districts to apply for federal funding to be able to teach comprehensive sex education if they choose to,” said Duran.
The list of Republican complaints about the bill was long. Led by Stephens, 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 one parent to sit on the oversight committee, not the seven pushed by Republicans, to be selected by the CDPHE.
At one point, the process became so convoluted that Rep. Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) observed that the bill was being “drafted on the fly, with amendments and substitute amendments.”
Republicans also argued that the bill usurps the rights of parents to decide when to discuss sexual topics with their children. State Rep. Sue Schafer (D-Wheat Ridge) inadvertently bolstered GOP arguments when she said that with her children, it was “my responsibility to talk to them about what heterosexuality is, what homosexuality is.”
Schafer, who identified herself as a “gay mother and a gay grandmother,” added, “I want you to know there are gay children in kindergarten. They were born that way. They didn’t get infected with anything.”
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.”