Wednesday's marathon ten-hour hearing at the State Capitol about a comprehensive sex education bill was freighted with irony on at least two fronts.
The main point of contention about the legislation, which passed the House Health and Insurance Committee by a 7-to-4 party-line vote, involved its call for a ban of abstinence-only teachings in public schools that's already a Colorado law, albeit an often-ignored one, on the books for almost six years.
Second, even the measure's main sponsor, Representative Susan Lontine, isn't sure funding will be available to make the proposal a reality. In her words, "I don't know yet if we can find the money to do this."
The 2019 offering, House Bill 19-1032, and its 2013 predecessor, House Bill 13-1081, are similar in their goal of requiring that sex education in Colorado public schools be comprehensive. "We didn't reinvent the wheel," Lontine stresses about her bill.
The official summary of House Bill 19-1032 begins like so:
The bill clarifies content requirements for public schools that offer comprehensive human sexuality education and prohibits instruction from explicitly or implicitly teaching or endorsing religious ideology or sectarian tenets or doctrines, using shame-based or stigmatizing language or instructional tools, employing gender norms or gender stereotypes, or excluding the relational or sexual experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals.
The introduction goes on to note that "current law provides for a comprehensive human sexuality education grant program" before adding that the latest legislation "amends certain provisions of the grant program to:
• Require the department of public health and environment to submit an annual report concerning the outcomes of the grant program indefinitely;
• Add 8 representatives to the oversight entity and require membership of the oversight entity to be comprised of at least 7 members who are members of groups of people who have been or might be discriminated against;
• Require grant applicants to demonstrate a need for money to implement comprehensive human sexuality education; and
• Require that rural public schools or public schools that do not currently offer comprehensive human sexuality education receive priority when selecting grant applicants."
The bill also "prohibits the state board of education from waiving the content requirements for any public school that provides comprehensive human sexuality education." This passage is aimed at public charters, Lontine confirms. Current law "allows charter schools to waive out of that requirement. But my bill closes that loophole. If it passes, charters will no longer be able to waive out."
Parochial and private schools aren't covered by the mandate, but during the Wednesday hearing, multiple people, including at least one priest, railed against it from a faith perspective. According to Lontine, most of them argued that disallowing abstinence-only teaching in public schools would create a broader cultural impact, to which they object. She rejects such assertions.
"Public schools shouldn't be endorsing religious ideology," she allows. "It's a violation of our constitutional rights — not just the nation's constitution, but our own state constitution. Those aren't values that students should be learning at school. They should be learning those at home, with their parents. Public institutions using public money shouldn't be endorsing anything religious."
Disagreements over this viewpoint no doubt boosted the hearing's attendance, which Lontine saw building in the days before the session took place.
"When we began to get inundated with emails and my office phone was constantly ringing off the hook and my voicemail box was always full, I kind of figured out it would be a big deal," she says. "We made arrangements for the largest seating room we had, and we did our best to accommodate everyone who came. Everybody got to have their say, although some people were given the choice of writing their comments on cards collected by staffers so they'd be on the record. We had over 350 witnesses signed up, and I don't know how many ended up testifying. Many of them left before we finished. But we heard from a lot of people."
Some of what Lontine learned surprised her — often in a bad way. For instance, "We heard in testimony that a lot more public schools than we realized are continuing to teach abstinence-only sex education despite the law. And some of them appear to be in Douglas County. We had several students from Douglas County who said they're only getting abstinence-only sex education. So that's a bigger problem than I thought."
The conversations as a whole led Lontine to "tweak a few things," she says. "One of them was about pregnancy outcomes. Originally, we said pregnancy outcomes don't need to be discussed, but if you do discuss them, they should include parenting, adoption and abortion. We added safe havens to that. And we also made it clear that teaching one component — like having a biology class that teaches about reproduction — is not explicitly teaching comprehensive sex education. That became a bone of contention, so we clarified that would be a violation."
Schools committing such an infraction won't face specific punishment — but there's an incentive for those that sign on. The measure "provides a general appropriation of at least $1 million annually for the grant program" that was supposed to help schools create the sort of comprehensive sex education program that they may not have been able to offer previously back in 2013, but didn't.
"That bill created a grant program to help schools that didn't have the resources to do this," Lontine notes. "But it was supposed to be funded by gifts, grants and donations, and they never got any. So the grant program was never funded. I made the change to have the state put in $1 million to fund the program."
Getting the cash is what Lontine describes as "the next hurdle." The $1 million request must be approved by the Appropriations Committee, and she says, "I'll work with members to see if we can find some money to fund it. We have a lot of priorities competing — a lot of good priorities — so I don't want to say that mine is more important than others. So we'll just have to see how it goes."
When asked if she's optimistic about locating a spare $1 million, she replies, "I don't know. At this point, I couldn't tell you."