Washington State Sex-Ed Referendum a Model for Civic Engagement

Washington State Capitol in Olympia. (Siegfried Schnepf/Getty Images)

Why the skirmish in the Pacific Northwest should serve as a model for better, more substantive, and more local political debate over education in the U.S.

On election day this November, a referendum will be held in Washington State to either sanction or repeal a portion of the state’s public school curriculum.

Earlier in the year, Democrats in the state legislature passed a law mandating that sex education be taught in public schools across the state. The bill allows for school districts to decide upon their own curriculum for sex-ed, and for parents to opt their children out of the lessons if they so desire. Still, the measures have been met with serious opposition from conservatives. A pressure group called Parents For Safe Schools has forced a referendum on the law by gathering 264,000 signatures — more than double the number required.

As soon as the battle-lines were drawn, familiar faces on either side of the aisle began to get involved in the referendum campaign. Around half of the $1.1 million raised by the pro-curriculum side has come from Planned Parenthood affiliates. Most of the opposition’s $245,000 war chest, meanwhile, has been supplied by the Reagan Fund, a political action committee affiliated with House Republican Leadership.

The bill’s only major alteration to the current — though not, as yet, universally mandated — sex-ed standards across the state is the addition of lessons on sexual consent to the curriculum. Students would learn about “affirmative consent and recognizing and responding safely and effectively when violence, or a risk of violence, is or may be present with strategies that include bystander training.” It’s unsurprising that consent-codes are coming to play a bigger role in sex education than they have before. Ever since the moral mores that once regulated sexual behavior in our society were dismantled in the 1960s, progressives have been groping around in dark (no pun intended) for a new sexual morality. They seem to have settled on consent as the only and ultimate ethical standard in this area. It’s a rather flimsy and inadequate standard for regulating something as fragile, volatile, and indispensable to human civilization as sexual behavior: Many victims of sexual assault, finding themselves trapped in a tragic courtroom game of “he-said-she-said,” have come to understand this to their cost. What’s more, the ethics of sola consentia also fail to provide us with the moral grammar necessary to confront unconscionable sexual behavior with the requisite fury and indignation.

These are just some of the reasons why conservative religious parents don’t want their children to learn sexual ethics from secular government schools. Sex is not like mathematics. Ask a priest and a pimp what the answer to “1+1” is and you are likely to get the same answer. Ask them about the nature and purpose of sexual intercourse and you will begin to wonder if they are members of the same species. Sex is simply one of the most value-laden and widely disagreed-upon subjects in American public life. Whether Democratic legislators in Washington mean to or not, it remains the case that any sex-ed curriculum will communicate implicit assumptions and expectations about sexual morality to students. Lessons in the rituals of consent are liable to give the impression that consent is all that must be obtained in order for a sexual encounter to be morally permissible, when many conservatives believe that it’s only one among many other necessary ethical conditions. Sex education, as it appears in the Washington bill, amounts to more than lessons in mere anatomy. It clearly involves some element of moral instruction. This is not to accuse the architects of the bill of “indoctrination” or “propaganda,” but merely to observe that disentangling sex and morality is all but impossible. It’s not for nothing that two thirds of the signatures on the Parents For Safe Schools petition came from church sites. Christianity has its own theology of sexuality and the body that has been thought-through and developed over the course of two thousand years. It’s eminently understandable that Christian parents are reluctant to expose their children, who are apostolic heirs to this tradition, to a poorly formulated, slapdash alternative ethic that’s about five minutes old.

The culture war over sex is not, however, the most notable feature of this conflict, important though it is. The really interesting political innovation here is the notion of local democratic control over school curricula. This is the first time in the state’s history that a particular curriculum will appear in a direct up-or-down referendum on a ballot. There should really be a lot more of this sort of thing, and not just for sex-ed. The formulation and adoption of public school curricula is one of the most étatist, technocratic, nigh-on Bonapartist areas of American government. The selection of what American children are taught is made almost exclusively by local school boards. These school boards are, in turn, staffed by men and women who are more than happy take the burdens of self-government off the hands of American parents when it comes to educating their children. Parents pay shockingly little attention to how the sausage is made when it comes to the school curricula being drilled into their children’s heads five days a week. This parental dereliction of duty is partly to blame for the presence of ahistorical and unscientific curricula in American schools.

Public school curricula has been largely removed from the democratic process in the United States. While particularly active and motivated parents can exert some level of influence over local school boards, decisions about school curricula are not constantly foisted upon the wider electorate the way that decisions about health care or taxation are. Forcing the electorate to think through the substance of school curricula during election cycles would be one of the best possible things for civic engagement in the United States right now. Knock-down, drag-out fights at City Hall between parents who have to decide how their children are going to be taught about the American Revolution would be infinitely preferable to our current political fights.

My colleague Ramesh Ponnuru has argued persuasively in several fora that the Republican Party should look to make itself into a “parents’ party” rather than a “workers’ party.” A good first-step toward that end would be to make the public school curriculum political. This would serve as a democratic check on activist teachers and administrators, and encourage more civic participation among parents. This is, in fact, precisely what’s happening in Washington State. Even apart from the merits of the particular curriculum in question, this skirmish in the Pacific Northwest should serve as a model for the better, more substantive, and more local political arguments over education that Americans should look to have in the future. Voters pay for government schools. Voters should decide what goes on in them.

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