Senate approves more hurdles for school sex ed instruction, but House balks

The Alaska Senate has approved a version of House Bill 156 amended to require sex education teachers to garner approval from a local school board before instructing students, but the House rejected those changes early Monday morning.

HB 156, approved by the Senate in a 15-5 vote on Sunday, did not include any sex education items when it was approved in a 22-17 House vote on April 10.

When the Senate delivered the bill to the House, lawmakers rejected it by a single vote, 20-19 with Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, absent. Twenty-one votes were needed to agree with the Senate changes.

“This is a bit of an omnibus bill,” said Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla.

The bill as originally written by Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, states that Alaska school districts can suspend their standardized testing programs for the next two years.

In a floor speech, Keller said districts will be allowed to “take a breather” after the failure of the Alaska Measures of Progress exam.

Designed over three years and intended to be Alaska’s answer to the national requirement for a standardized test to gauge students’ progress, AMP was an abysmal failure. Last year, in the first year of tests, results were delayed and incomplete, providing results that didn’t give administrators the data they wanted.

This year, a fiber-optic cable near the Kansas testing center was severed just as Alaska students were preparing to take their computerized AMP exams. The disruption was so great that the state first postponed, then cancelled all AMP testing.

Opponents of the bill said allowing districts to skip testing could endanger $99.3 million in federal funding contingent upon standardized tests.

In the Senate, the argument switched to one about sex ed after Sen. Dunleavy amended the bill to incorporate a version of his Senate Bill 89, which was defeated in a House committee.

SB 89, as passed by the Senate, would have banned abortion providers from providing sex ed in schools. The bill was seen as targeting Planned Parenthood and was hotly opposed on those grounds.

The Dunleavy amendment to HB 156 backed away from an outright ban but required sex ed to be taught by a certified teacher. In a single Senate Finance Committee hearing on Friday, 38 of 48 people testified against the Dunleavy proposal.

After that opposition, it was amended to allow a sex ed provider to be overseen by a certified teacher if the provider isn’t a teacher himself or herself.

The bill still requires all sex ed materials to be approved by local school boards, and all sex ed providers must be approved by the board as well.

“Those groups that are approved by the school district are good to go,” Dunleavy told fellow senators on the floor.

Despite that reassurance, the notion was blasted by Democrats on the Senate floor.

“We’re a state with some really, really alarming standards for STDs, HIV, pregnancy,” said Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage and the House Minority Leader.

It makes no sense, she said, for the state to put more barriers in front of badly needed sex ed.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, also opposed the measure and the time spent on it.

“I wish we spent as much time dealing with the issue of graduation rates as we spent on this issue of sex ed,” he said.

When the bill returned to the House after midnight Monday morning, it failed by a single vote to garner the support it needed. Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, voted in favor of the version containing the Dunleavy amendment.

When the House tried again, shortly after 3 a.m., the vote was the same, 20-19, though Muñoz had changed her position and voted against the bill containing the amendment. Rep. Sam Kito III, D-Juneau, was a firm “no” on both votes.

After the vote, Muñoz said she was thinking more about aspects of the bill that didn’t involve sex ed.

The House’s failure to agree with the version of the bill containing the Dunleavy amendment means a conference committee will be appointed to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill.

From the House, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla; Rep. David Talerico, R-Healy; and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, will sit on the committee.

 

This story was updated at 4 a.m. Monday to reflect the latest developments.

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