When it comes to sex education, a lack of information leads to predictable — and undesirable — results. The Columbian’s Editorial Board recommends that voters approve Referendum 90 on the November ballot.
As always, this is merely a recommendation. The Columbian trusts that voters will examine the issue before casting an informed ballot. Especially for a hot-button issue that has generated much misinformation, it is important for voters to understand exactly what the referendum will do rather than relying on partisan assertions from either side of the debate.
This year, the Legislature approved — and Gov. Jay Inslee signed — a bill (Senate Bill 5395) requiring school districts to provide medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education to students. Most school districts already do this, but the new law would require holdout districts to develop their own state-approved curriculum.
Referendum 90 appears on the ballot after opponents of the law collected enough signatures to send the bill to a vote of the people. An “approved” vote would enact the law; a “rejected” vote would leave Washington’s current sex ed law in place.
The benefits of sex education are clear. Multiple studies have demonstrated that comprehensive education results in reduced rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmissible infections while contributing to students’ physical and mental health. As the National Association of School Nurses writes: “Evidence-based sexual health education can improve academic success; prevent dating violence, and bullying; help youth develop healthier relationships; delay sexual initiation; reduce unplanned pregnancy, HIV, and other STIs; and reduce sexual health disparities among LGBTQ youth.”
The fact is that children and teens will seek out information about their bodies and about sex. It is imperative that such information come from reliable sources in a safe environment rather than from friends or the internet. Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, who supported the bill, said, “Teaching students how to be good friends, how to say no to unwanted touches, and how to develop healthy, respectful relationships are all building blocks of public education.”
The four states with the highest teenage birth rates as of 2017 — Arkansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Louisiana — all stressed abstinence in sexual education. Researchers at the University of Georgia analyzed changing teen pregnancy rates among the states and concluded, “Abstinence-only sex education is ineffective in preventing teen pregnancy and may actually contribute to it.”
Washington’s new law requires information about abstinence and other methods of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, but may not consist only of information about abstinence.
Critics of the bill argue that schools should focus on traditional academic subjects rather than sex education, but we see no reason why schools are not able to do both.
Critics also say that parents should be the primary source of sex education. We agree, but that does not mean that schools cannot add to that education with accurate information. It is unrealistic to think that all or most students are receiving a comprehensive education at home, and raising sensitive issues at school is more comfortable for many students.
In addition, parents will retain the ability to remove their students from required sex education.
Sex education is part of developing confident, secure adults. The Columbian recommends that voters approve Referendum 90.