Washington’s mandatory sex-education referendum tests conservative power at the ballot box

This spring, as the coronavirus spread across Washington, a team of stalwart volunteers set up signature-gathering drive-thrus outside churches and stores. Their aim: to put a referendum on the November ballot overturning a new law that required public schools to teach comprehensive sexual health education.

Thousands of voters streamed to these impromptu drive-thrus. By June, more than 264,000 people had signed, more than double the number needed for the referendum to qualify for the ballot.

But in the roughly four months since then, the campaign has moved mostly online. Those who favor the sex education law have heavily outspent the people who want to overturn it. But the pro-sex-education campaign says misinformation has flourished online, especially on social media message boards and websites.

In November, with Referendum 90, Washington voters will have a chance to decide whether the law — passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee in March, but never enacted — will take effect. It’s the first time nationwide that sex education has appeared on a statewide ballot, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The law was sponsored and largely approved by Democrats; most lawmakers who oppose it are Republicans.

A vote to approve the referendum would mandate public schools teach sexual health education, though parents would have the choice to opt out; a vote against it means schools don’t have to offer any form of sex education if they don’t want to. 

The proposed referendum “really hit a chord with so many parents,” said state Rep. Luanne Van Werven, a Republican who represents most of Whatcom County and has helped lead the signature-gathering campaign against the law, known as Parents for Safe Schools.

Washington lawmakers added sex education requirements, but didn’t mandate it, in 2008. Back then, the state decided that if districts offer sex education, it must be age-appropriate and medically and scientifically accurate.

If the 2020 law goes into effect, lessons would become mandatory for all students starting in kindergarten. According to the law and state education department officials, young children would learn about finding trusted adults, making friends and other topics related to social-emotional wellbeing. Older children would learn about affirmative consent, sexual violence and sexually transmitted diseases. Lessons would be inclusive of all children, including LGBTQ students.

Those in favor of the law, including several prominent labor unions, civil rights groups and Democratic state officials, say a basic standard should be required statewide because all young people could benefit from information that helps them navigate relationships. “It’s about personal safety and making sure young people know they have a right to say ‘no,’” said state Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, who sponsored the bill.

Opponents, which include the state’s Republican party and several anti-abortion organizations, say the law diminishes the power of local school communities. Some also object to topics covered in certain sex education curricula.

Many Washington districts already offer some sexual health education, though it isn’t necessarily comprehensive: A recent state survey suggests that 93% of districts teach