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A bill to help parents teach their kids about sex won committee approval on Monday after more than an hour of discussion that often veered into the perpetual debate over the role of schools versus parents in sex education.
The Senate Education Committee voted 4-2 on Monday to advance SB39 to the Senate floor. The bill would require the state school board to develop and offer optional online training to parents on how to educate their kids about sex. The bill would not change how sex education is taught in schools.
Bill sponsor Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden, said schools have an important role when it comes to teaching kids about sex, "but there's also a role for the parents, and too often we abdicate that responsibility over to the educators and don't really accept that the first responsibility is with the parents."
He said he thought of the idea after the brouhaha last session over a bill, HB363, that would have scaled back sex education in Utah schools. Though the Legislature passed that bill, the governor ultimately vetoed it.
Reid said he felt the discussion last year was the wrong one, and he wanted to bring the conversation back this year to parental responsibility.
But speakers and lawmakers had varying opinions on the proposal Monday, with some supporting it and others criticizing it as impractical and still relying too much on the state.
Connor Boyack of the Libertas Institute said it shouldn't be schools' responsibility to educate parents, and it seems unnecessary to create such an online program when many organizations already offer materials online.
State Superintendent Martell Menlove also said the state school board opposes the bill. He said the bill would likely cost money to implement despite Reid's assertion that it wouldn't. For example, it could cost cash to notify parents about the program's availability twice a year as the bill proposes. Menlove also said it would be difficult for the board to create an online program appropriate for all students and parents.
It was a sentiment echoed by Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay.
"I just feel like we're putting our good education people in a very awkward position because no matter what they come up with for the curriculum … it seems to me someone will not feel comfortable with what that is," Jones said.
In fact, a couple of years ago the State Office of Education created a slideshow presentation about contraception for sex education teachers to use in their classrooms, with the intention of ensuring consistency across the state. They pulled that slideshow, however, after some conservatives voiced objections, though schools are allowed, by law, to teach about contraception.
But others expressed enthusiastic support Monday for SB39, including a handful of students.
Timpview High School student Rachel Sybrowsky said her debate team has spent much time discussing the issue. She said any cost of developing such training for parents is well worth the money that would be saved by helping to prevent teen pregnancies and other problems.
"We don't believe sex education is the mutually exclusive right of parents or education," Sybrowsky said. "SB39 provides a choice."
Fellow Timpview High student Parker Christensen added that students might feel more free to ask questions at home than they would in a classroom.
Gayle Ruzicka, head of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum, said of the bill: "I just think it makes all the sense in the world. Why would we not make it easier for [parents] so they can just access it online."
Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Eagle Mountain, also voiced support, saying he admired Reid's approach to tackling the issue.
"Sometimes we talk about the proper role of government, and I don't think it should have ever been to perform sex education for our children, certainly not the way it's presented now…I think it's appropriate to take steps to bring it back," Madsen said.
But Reid said that the intention of his bill is not necessarily to replace sex education in schools.
Jones and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, were the only committee members to vote against the bill Monday. Stephenson wondered at one point if it would be better to hold the bill in committee to explore more ways to deliver the information digitally.