TRENTON – Legislation that seeks to improve transparency about schools’ health and sex education curriculum advanced through an Assembly committee Thursday, despite criticism that it wouldn’t actually change much.

Sex education classes have become controversial in recent months, as schools prepare to meet new standards that take effect next school year. Activists are demanding their repeal and don’t support the proposed bill, A3968, because they see it as a half-measure at best.

“Parents don’t need a bill for transparency. We need a bill that protects children and parental rights,” said Lorraine Regan of Montclair. “We want a bill that removes the radical new sex-ed standards. We have a constitutional right to direct our children’s education. There is nothing more sacred than a child’s innocence, and it should be protected.”

The Assembly Education Committee meeting was a bit less heated than one last week in the Senate but still had moments of crosstalk and raised voices.

Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, D-Camden, repeatedly asked people who were testifying to address the bill, not the standards adopted by the State Board of Education they find objectionable. Lampitt cut off Regan’s microphone because she kept discussing the standards; Regan called that un-American.

The bill makes reference to materials that must be published online if they’re used to meet the state’s health and sex education standards. It would apply to any such standards – whether adopted in 2020 or 2012 – but the bill’s critics say the bill is essentially writing what they oppose into law.

“This is the point. The learning standards codify this type of material,” said Victoria Jakelsky, state director of a group called Team PYC, short for Protect Your Children. “This is absolute pornographic. It’s absolutely inappropriate.”

Education groups that regularly lobby in Trenton support the bill.

Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said it calls for things that have been practiced in the schools for a long time, such as being available to discuss issues and allowing parents to opt kids out of lessons.

“It’s been our experience that most districts from what we’ve heard are already posting this curriculum on their websites,” Lamon said.

Assemblywoman Vicky Flynn, R-Monmouth, said that’s true and required by the state’s school district monitoring system. She called the bill “window dressing” and said the solution is to scrap the standards, not push off the controversy to school boards.

“You have all been told that this bill will help address an issue that I know we’re all getting a lot of calls on,” Flynn said. “I’m here to tell you it’s not going to address it.”

Shawn Hyland, executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of New Jersey, said some parents experience unfair obstacles when trying to review curriculum and lessons, as guaranteed by federal law.

“Parents often have to make a request in writing, meet with school administrators or fill out public records requests to access these rights, or exercise these rights,” Hyland said. “This puts an undue burden on parents, making access to these records extremely difficult.”

Democrats say that’s what the bill seeks to address by having materials posted online. Asked if an ombudsman might be able to help when parents hit a roadblock, critics of the bill insisted the solution should be to eliminate the new standards.

George Corwell, director of the education office at the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said his group has run into issues helping parents monitor their districts’ sex education textbooks and materials.

“Many of the courses are taught by nurses, and they are not using textbooks but their own notes. And they refuse to deal (with) the categories of what’s being taught in the nurses’ notes,” Corwell said.

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Among the other suggestions from the hearing: Make health classes an elective. Establish a set period in which districts must hold hearings on their curriculum, so there's enough time to make changes. Create a common form for filing complaints about the curriculum and make sure it's bilingual. And teach sex education in the last week of the school year, so parents who object can pull their kids out of school and start their summer break early.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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