Voters Just Mandated Sex Ed Statewide for the First Time in the U.S.

About 60% of Washington voters decided to pass a bill that Republicans had tried to amend over 200 times. But families can opt out if they want.
Generic image of couple holding hands. (Getty Images)

Public-school kids in Washington state will be getting sex education six times during their school years, thanks to a first-in-the-nation ballot measure that passed in the election Tuesday.

Almost 60% of Washington voters decided to pass Referendum 90, which mandates that Washington public school districts must either choose or create curriculum that will provide students with comprehensive sex ed—including information about affirmative consent and bystander training. 


The referendum, the only statewide ballot initiative in Washington this year, has a long and convoluted history. Technically, voters were asked to decide whether to let Senate Bill 5395, a bill that’s already passed the state legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee, go into effect. But in June, after Inslee signed the bill, a group called Parents for Safe Schools, outraged by the measure, delivered more than 266,000 signatures to the Washington state secretary in support of putting the bill on the ballot. 

That bill requires every public school to offer wide-ranging sex ed to all students in grades 6-12 by the 2021-22 school year, and to students as young as kindergarten by the 2022-23 school year. Sex ed must be provided no less than six times: once to students between kindergarten and third grade, once to students between fourth and fifth grade, twice to students between sixth and eighth grade, and twice to students between ninth and 12th grade. 

The curriculum offered to students must be age-appropriate. Young students will focus on what the bill calls “social-emotional learning.” But as students get older, the sex ed will include information about sexually transmitted diseases, health care resources, communication skills, and the “development of meaningful relationships and avoidance of exploitative relationships,” as the bill puts it.

“All curriculum, instruction, and materials used in providing comprehensive sexual health education must be medically and scientifically accurate and must use language and strategies that recognize all members of protected classes,” the bill declares.


Families can opt out their children out of the sex ed if they want.

Predictably, the Washington bill generated quite a bit of controversy in the Democrat-dominated legislature. Republicans who opposed the bill tried to add 232 amendments to it, according to the Stranger, Seattle’s local alternative weekly. The Stranger highlighted a few of its favorite amendments, like the amendment would’ve blocked teachers from offering lessons about the fact that condoms are “available in a variety of flavors and colors,” or the amendment that tried to ban “any curricula that directs students to resources that discuss BDSM, bloodplay, inserting vegetables into the anus, or similar sexual behavior.”

Neither amendment passed, and the bill ultimately sailed through the state legislature.

Although Washington state is reliably blue when it comes to presidential politics, thanks in part to the liberal bubble that is Seattle, state politics are often still a tug of war between the state’s western liberals and eastern conservatives. Some opponents of the sex ed measure said it hacked away at local school boards’ power, while others focused on their moral opposition to the bill. The Washington State Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of Washington’s Catholic bishops, backed the movement to get Referendum 90 on the ballot. 

By Tuesday, foes of the sex ed bill had raised about $461,000 to shut down the sex ed bill, the Seattle Times reported. However, its supporters’ fundraising far outstripped them, garnering $1.69 million for their war chest. 

As of October, just 30 states and Washington, D.C. require that public schools teach sex ed, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Just 22 require that, if provided, information on sex ed or HIV must be “medically, factually, or technically accurate,” per the National Conference, which told the Associated Press that sex ed had never before appeared on a statewide ballot.

Washington was already one of those 22 states. However, survey data from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction found that 40% of Washington school districts don’t offer sex education, the Stranger reported.