Washington school districts will be required to teach sexual health education to most students under a referendum approved Tuesday.
Nearly 60% in Tuesday’s count were favoring Referendum 90, a measure that marks the first time nationwide that a sex education mandate has appeared on a statewide ballot.
“It tells us that the majority of Washingtonians are showing really resounding support for comprehensive sex education and that is really, really good news for Washington’s young people,” said Courtney Normand, Washington state director of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, who led the campaign.
By approving the measure, voters signaled that a 2020 law should go into effect making lessons mandatory starting in kindergarten, though families could choose to opt out.
Supporters said a basic standard should be required since all students could benefit from sexual health information. Young children would learn social emotional skills, including how to make friends; older students would learn about navigating relationships, recognizing sexual violence and what to do if it happens and how sexually transmitted infections are spread and prevented.
The group supporting the law, including several prominent labor unions, civil rights groups and Democratic state officials, had raised more than $1.69 million as of Tuesday.
Opponents led a historic signature-gathering campaign in the spring, braving drive- and walk-thru signing booths to get the referendum on the ballot. They’ve argued that mandating such lessons strips power from local school boards. Some are also strongly opposed to certain sexual health education topics. Opponents, which include the state’s Republican Party and several anti-abortion organizations, had raised about $461,000 by Tuesday.
The referendum was passing in King County on Tuesday, with 75% of voters approving it; Pierce, Snohomish and Whatcom counties also supported it. But voters in a handful of other Western Washington counties, such as Lewis and Mason, appeared to be joining most of Eastern Washington in rejecting the measure in Tuesday’s count.
In the weeks leading up to Election Day, supporters of mandatory sex education accused the anti-Referendum 90 campaign of spreading misinformation about the law’s requirements. Social media pages urging voters to reject the measure claimed that school districts would be forced to use a single statewide sex education curriculum; in reality, districts can choose from existing curricula or create their own. Mindie Wirth, who led the opposition campaign, didn’t respond to phone messages Tuesday.