For about two hours Monday, a state Senate panel heard often-heated testimony from some parents, conservative groups, and religious leaders who voiced fear about children being exposed to what they see as inappropriate or even pornographic material under New Jersey’s new sex education standards.
At the same time, Republican lawmakers repeated their calls to repeal the incoming guidelines — despite Democrats, education officials, and progressive advocates who insist the issue is being twisted and blown out of proportion.
In the end, the Senate Education Committee voted along party lines to move forward with a Democratic-sponsored bill that doesn’t undo the standards but aims to allay concerns by mandating school districts publish their sex ed curriculums online in the summer, ensuring parents can ask questions about the lessons, and reinforcing their right to opt children out of the classes.
“If this becomes law … we will know what’s going on in our curricula in all of our school districts,” state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, the committee’s chairman and bill’s main sponsor, said during the hearing at the Statehouse in Trenton. “And if we see bad actors out there, this will be how we can try to correct that — if we do see things being taught that shouldn’t be taught.”
New Jersey’s updated health and physical education standards, adopted by the state Board of Education in June 2020, outline when students should learn about topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity, and anatomy. It’s up to individual school districts to implement their own curricula based on the guidelines starting in the 2022-23 school year.
But there has been sustained uproar in recent weeks from Republican officials and some parents who claim the standards go too far with topics that should be up to families to discuss. The issue exploded in recent weeks after the Westfield school district released sample lessons the state provided on a resource page — though local officials insisted they were merely examples and won’t be part of the curriculum in the fall.
Gov. Phil Murphy and fellow Democrats, who control the state Legislature, have defended the standards, saying they will provide students with a more inclusive education. They also say critics are misrepresenting what the guidelines actually say and maligning the LGTBQ community to score political points months before November’s congressional midterm elections.
The standards are still on schedule and the state Board of Education president last week said the panel will not re-evaluate them despite a request by four of its 13 members to do so.
Gopal — who narrowly won re-election last year — said he sponsored the bill that advanced Monday (S2481) to give parents a greater say in the matter, even though he has said critics are spreading misinformation about the standards.
The measure would require school boards in the state to offer an annual opportunity for parents, guardians, and other residents to publicly comment on any curriculum using the standards.
It would also require districts to post curricula to their websites at least two weeks before classes start, while also reiterating parents’ rights to opt their child out of sex education at school. The latter part is already guaranteed by a 1980 state law.
This was the first time Gopal’s measure received a public hearing. The result was less a debate on the bill and more a forum for Republicans and opponents of the standards to keep pressing Democrats to repeal them completely and start over.
Nicole Gallo claimed children will be forced to learn “obscene and pornographic material that has no relevance in education.”
“In reading, writing, and arithmetic we should stick,” she said. “Each family has a right to teach their children what they deem is moral and ethic.”
Eric Simkin, a school board candidate in Voorhees, said “we will not co-parent with the government.”
Rev. Gregory Quinlan of the Center for Garden State Families, who described himself as “ex-gay,” took it further, saying the standards would allow teachers to “groom” students for “sex traffickers” — an argument often raised by the far right on social media, using a stereotype that claims LGBTQ people are trying to indoctrinate children.
“Sir, you are completely out of line,” Gopal responded.
The chairman repeatedly chided speakers for commenting on the standards themselves — which he stressed are decided by the state school board — instead of the bill being considered.
“This bill has to do with transparency in curriculum,” Gopal said. “Something you should all want, but for whatever reason, you’re opposed to this bill.”
Some speakers said while they support transparency, parents won’t have a chance to change standards that have already been approved by the state.
“We all want transparency, but not after the horse has been let out of the barn,” said Eveleth Roderer, a parent from Warren County.
State Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, said many parents “don’t want sexual orientation being taught” in kindergarten, first grade, or second grade.
“They think it’s a little too early,” Doherty said.
The new standards do not say students should learn about sexual orientation in those grades but that “all individuals should feel welcome and included regardless of their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation” by the end of fifth grade. They say by second grade, teachers should “discuss the range of ways people express their gender and how gender-role stereotypes may limit behavior.”
Doherty also expressed concern the standards allow some material to be taught not just in health class but multiple subjects.
“I don’t think they teach sex ed in math,” Gopal replied.
Before the hearing began, Republican lawmakers introduced two separate bills that would repeal the standards, prohibit the state Board of Education from issuing new standards, and create a “Parents Bill of Rights” to provide more information about curricula.
“The current controversy over the extreme mandates imposed by unelected Trenton bureaucrats demonstrates exactly why we need to empower parents and local communities to control how sex education is taught in their children’s schools,” said Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, one of the sponsors.
Doherty said Gopal’s bill moves “the needle in the right direction” because “we all like transparency” and “parents to be heard.” But he said he couldn’t support it because it still codifies the standards and instead called for lawmakers to consider the Republican measures to “address legitimate concerns” of parents and “put decisions about how to teach sex education 100% in the hands of local school boards, parents, and their communities.”
It’s unlikely the Republican bills will get a vote in the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats who determine which measures get considered.
Critics also lamented how Gopal’s proposal was not yet available online for the public as of Monday’s hearing, which they noted was ironic because of its focus on transparency.
“The disrespect to the people of New Jersey by the party in power when it comes to legislation has got to stop,” Quinlan said.
Gopal stressed time is of the essence because if his bill isn’t passed soon, there will be no mandate for districts to post their sex and health curricula online by September.
“At the end of the day, if we don’t pass this today, we have nothing,” the chairman said. “I think it’s a really good start.”
The Senate committee ultimately approved the bill 3-1-1. Gopal and two other Democrats, Sens. Sandra Cunningham of Hudson County and Shirley Turner of Mercer County, voted in favor, while Doherty voted no and state Sen. Samuel Thompson, R-Middlesex, abstained.
It must now be passed by both the full Senate and state Assembly before Murphy could decide whether to sign it into law. Gopal said he expects the Assembly to consider the measure.
This all comes in the wake of Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans schools in the state from teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity in pre-school through third grade, and 15 similar laws proposed in other states.
The Senate Education Committee on Monday also approved a bill (S1221) that would require New Jersey public schools to provide free menstrual products in all bathrooms.
“This legislation will keep students in the classroom by making supplies readily available to those who need them,” said Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, a sponsor.
In addition, the panel approved another a bill (S2268) that would require a report on learning loss to study the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students. The measure would provide analysis based on district size, grade and subject areas as well as students’ race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, ability or disability and English language proficiency.
Both proposals would need to be passed by the full Senate and Assembly before heading to the governor’s desk for final approval.
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