Bright school stationery on old wooden table

Saying parents need more control, a Senate panel voted last week to make sex education in Arizona schools optional in some respects and outlaw any form of it outright before the fifth grade.

SB 1456 also requires governing boards, before approving any sex ed instruction, to have at least two public hearings. And the course of study would have to be available for review and comment at least 60 days before final approval by the boards.

“These are common-sense improvements to what we’re all, I think, trying to achieve: putting parents back in control and making sure that they know and are, once again, fully responsible for their children’s education in every way, especially on a sensitive topic,’’ said Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix.

But foes of the legislation said what the Education Committee approved on a 5-3 party-line vote is troubling.

“This bill is unnecessary,’’ said Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson. She said parents already have options under state law to review all educational materials.

Her bigger concern was with language that spells out that parents need to separately opt in to any instruction, learning materials or presentations regarding gender identity or gender expression in courses other than formal sex education. 

And yet another section requires specific written permission for students to learn about AIDS and HIV.

All of that, Gonzales said, can lead to singling out and harming children who are different.

“I am speaking on behalf of children who are already dealing with discrimination at the school because they identify as different from how they look,’’ she said.

“We need to protect these children in our schools across the state,’’ Gonzales continued. “We cannot make them feel bad because they identify with a different gender.’’

Sen. Christine Marsh, R-Phoenix, who said she has taught sex ed classes, said the issue is not as simple as the legislation makes it out to be.

“It is not about sex,’’ she said. “It is about human growth and development.’’

Geoff Esposito of the American Civil Liberties Union said that singling out issues like gender identification and gender expression for disparate treatment in sex ed classes amounts to a form of discrimination against those of the LGBTQ community.

Barto defended the language.

“Parents shouldn’t have to worry about what schools are teaching their children about human sexuality and gender identity,’’ she said. “They should have easy access to curriculum and the authority to opt in to sex ed and any other instruction related to sexual education.’’

“Children are so overexposed to sexual materials,’’ Bato said.

Marsh said the flaw in that is the presumption that there are responsible parents and they are doing their job. She spoke of a girl she would later take in as a foster child who had been abused and impregnated by her uncle at age 11.

“Her parents didn’t protect her,’’ Marsh said. “I’m all for parents’ rights but we’ve got to have a safety net in place.’’

And Marsh said that might not have occurred had the girl had been instructed at an early age about “good touch’’ and what is a healthy relationship.

SB 1456 does not spell out what can and cannot be taught, provided that a parent opts in to each of the specified areas, including sexual orientation and HIV/AIDS instruction -- and as long as there’s no mention of any of that before fifth grade.

But Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said that in some ways it is a reversal of a decision by lawmakers in 2019 to repeal a then-existing provision in sex-ed laws which spelled out that teachers could not promote homosexuality as a positive lifestyle. That same law also spelled out that if schools teach about “safe sex’’ they cannot say there is any such possibility when it involves homosexual conduct.

“It’s sad to see them descent further every day into intolerance and hatred,’’ said Quezada, who worked on that 2019 repeal, in a Twitter post.

The measure now goes to the full Senate.