Deseret News editorial: Thoughtful veto of sex education bill
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert late Friday vetoed the controversial sex education bill, turning back the legislative effort to eliminate classroom discussion tied to contraceptives, intercourse and homosexuality.
"Existing law respects the ability of Utah parents to choose if and how their student will receive classroom instruction on these topics," Herbert said in a prepared statement. "I am unwilling to conclude that the State knows better than Utah's parents as to what is best for their children."
Herbert vetoed the bill then attended a Meet the Candidates forum in Heber City Friday night. Following the meeting he confirmed that he considered each side of the issue before deciding to "push the reset button on it."
He said there is a lot of angst in Utah over the issue and he was not ready to change existing law. "We ought to just start over on this conversation," he said.
The bill, HB363, was one of the more controversial issues of the 2012 legislative session and the uproar amplified after lawmakers adjourned, with thousands calling for its veto through phone calls, emails, an online petition and protests at the Capitol.
Gayle Ruzicka, President of the Utah Eagle Forum, said she was disappointed with the governor's decision. The veto, she said, gives students "a stamp of approval" to engage in sexual activities.
"We had 64 legislators vote in favor of that bill," she said. "And one Republican who spends a couple days looking at it caves in to the pressure."
HB363 passed with overwhelming majorities in both legislative chambers, but it would be necessary for some dissenting lawmakers to change their votes in order to overrule the veto. Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for Herbert, said it is the prerogative of the Legislature to challenge the veto if it chooses, but that possibility did not influence the governor's decision.
"The governor makes his decisions irrespective of what they will do," she said.
After careful consideration of the bill, Herbert decided it went too far, she said.
"He feels he can't sign a bill that restricts a parent's choices," she said.
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said that he continues to support the bill and doesn't see how the governor thinks it limits the choice of parents.
"Maybe he didn't understand it," Waddoups said.
Current law requires parents to opt-in their students in districts where instruction on contraceptives is presented. HB363 would have removed that requirement by establishing a uniform abstinence-only curriculum across the state.
"If HB363 were to become law, parents would no longer have the option the overwhelming majority is currently choosing for their children," Herbert said in the statement.
Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said he was not surprised by the governor's decision and said it's clear Herbert had taken the time to carefully consider the bill. He said he still believes there is a risk of students being exposed to inappropriate material and that the Legislature has a responsibility to address the content of sex education courses. But he also said HB363 was drafted without ample feedback from the education community.
"We do need to reach out to our education experts," he said. "We do need to involve them."
Ruzicka and the Eagle Forum lobbied aggressively in support of the bill and she said that she did not expect lawmakers to attempt to overrule the veto. "Everyone is tired of it," she said, noting the Eagle Forum will now focus on educating parents on what their children are really being presented in the classroom.
In addition to the feedback from the public, many groups had issued statements urging the governor to veto the bill. Liz Zentner, President-elect of the Utah PTA said she was grateful for Herbert's decision. She called it difficult, but courageous, and said she was impressed with Utah parents who went from a silent to a loud majority.
"The majority of parents want their students to have this information," she said.
Rep. Bill Wright, R-Holden, who sponsored the bill, could not be reached Friday but has said that in addition to reasserting the role of parents in the education of their children, he was motivated by what he perceived as inappropriate material being presented in schools. Specifically, he mentioned material developed by Planned Parenthood and links on the Utah State Office of Education website that directed users to Planned Parenthood content.
Representatives from both organizations said that collaboration ended last year. But the sentiment gained momentum in the Legislature and helped push its passage.
The bill drew condemnation from thousands who voiced their opinions through social media and in calls to the governor's office, fearing the bill could keep potentially life-saving information from students who might not receive it otherwise. Others supported the bill that attempted to put the focus of sex education into the home.
Sen. Margaret Dayton the bill's Senate sponsor, said Wright had tried for years to have the website links taken down. But it was not until HB363 favorably passed the House Education Committee that the two organizations were "decoupled."
"It was the links between the State Office of Education and Planned Parenthood that urged (Wright), in reality, to tighten up the abstinence-only teaching," Dayton, R-Orem, said.
But Karrie Galloway, CEO of Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, said those links were removed nearly one year ago. They were removed after a Bountiful parent complained about the content of a maturation presentation produced by Planned Parenthood called "Growing Up Comes First" and the apparent endorsement of that program on the office of education's website.
After the bill cleared the Legislature, Galloway said there was talk that a lingering image of the education board's logo may have inadvertently remained somewhere in their system. But she said their website and materials had since been searched "with a fine-toothed comb" to remove any and all references to the office of education.
"When the whole fracas happened last spring, we thought we had removed every recommendation by the State Office of Education," Galloway said.
Galloway said "Growing Up Comes First" is used by a number of school districts in their fifth- and sixth-grade maturation programs and for years, Planned Parenthood worked with the board of education to make the program available to schools. Galloway said there is nothing objectionable in the material and added that districts were free to incorporate or abandon portions of "Growing Up Comes First" as they deemed fit for their students.
"I find it to be a very well-respected curriculum and it is sensitive to local communities," she said.
The program focuses on the developmental changes that accompany puberty, she said, and educates students on topics like acne and body hair and gender-specific subjects. Typically, schools separate students by gender and present only the information relevant to each group.
Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for Instructional Services with the State Office of Education, confirmed that any links to Planned Parenthood on their website were removed prior to the legislative session as a response to the complaint filed last spring. She said the links in question had been put up in 1996 and took some digging to find on the website. But in the years since their posting, she said the pages they directed users to had changed to contain potentially offensive material.
"We were surprised by the link," she said. "There were some aspects about it that were walking the line."
A bill nearly-identical to HB363 was sponsored by Wright in 2000 and was subsequently vetoed by then-Gov. Mike Leavitt at the urging of the State Board of Education. As part of that veto, a number of rules were set in place regarding sex education, including the requirement for parents to opt-in their students, a requirement that all sex education materials be approved at the district level by a committee of parents and the district school board, and a mechanism for parents to lodge complaints.
Current law also permits school districts to implement a curriculum that is more conservative than what is allowed by law and four districts currently teach an abstinence-only curriculum.
Hales said the only documented complaint that reached the state office in the 12 years since those rules were enacted was that of the Bountiful parent last spring addressing the website links. She also said that while there is no hard data available, it is estimated that between 92 and 95 percent of parents grant permission for their children to attend sex education and maturation courses.
Weber State University announced this week that if signed into law, the bill would require it to discontinue concurrent enrollment courses that currently serve 850 Weber and Davis county students.
Deseret News editorial: Thoughtful veto of sex education bill
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