House will again consider bill with sex ed implications

A controversial bill that would require school-board approval of sex education classes for Alaska students is headed back to the state House for a floor vote.

On Tuesday morning, a conference committee recommended the Senate version of House Bill 156 be returned to the House for a vote after different versions of the legislation passed the House and Senate.

The conference committee was unanimous in favor of the move. Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, was the lone member of a minority caucus on the committee, but he was absent from the vote.

Kreiss-Tomkins later said by text message that in an “honest oversight,” he had not been informed of the conference committee meeting. He called that oversight “unfortunate.”

House Bill 156, originally drafted by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla and chairman of the conference committee, passed the House as a measure giving state school districts a two-year break from a standardized-testing requirement.

After years of development, state’s vaunted Alaska Measures of Progress exam failed to deliver the data administrators sought, and this year’s tests were cancelled when a backhoe severed a fiber-optic cable in Kansas, home to the testing center, just as Alaska students were preparing to take the computerized exam.

Keller has previously said the measure was intended to give districts a “breather” after the failure of the test. Opponents in the House said they worry the bill could jeopardize nearly $100 million in federal funding predicated upon the state requiring a standardized test.

Keller responded that the federal government does not move quickly, and he does not believe a two-year break will harm schools.

In the Senate, the bill was amended by Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, to include portions of his SB 89, a controversial measure that failed in a House committee.

SB 89 would have prohibited sex education by anyone but a certified teacher employed at the local school hosting the sex ed course, and it was written to specifically forbid lessons provided by organizations that also provide abortion services. This was seen as specifically targeting Planned Parenthood.

Dunleavy’s amendment was subsequently watered down: The latest version of HB 156 requires only that sex ed instructors be overseen by a local teacher. Instead of prohibiting Planned Parenthood and any similar organizations, the bill requires that sex ed materials and instructors first be approved by a local school board.

HB 156 with the Dunleavy amendment garnered 15-5 support in the Senate, but it was second-guessed in the House, which was asked April 17 whether to agree with the Senate amendments.

Opponents said they are concerned that placing any obstacles in the path of school sex ed risks worsening the state’s epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence. By many metrics, Alaska has some of the highest rates in the United States for both issues.

House lawmakers turned down the amended bill by one vote, 20-19. That action sent the bill to the conference committee, where no changes were made.

Now, House lawmakers will be asked again: Do they agree with the Dunleavy amendment?

• Contact reporter James Brooks at james.k.brooks@juneauempire.com.

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