A Senate Education Committee hearing on a bill to expand transparency in New Jersey’s sex education program exploded today into a wide-ranging debate over the state’s entire educational curriculum, with a large number of parents and conservative activists registering their anger at the prospect of instruction on sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. (The bill itself cleared the committee on a 3-1-1 vote.)
Sponsored by Education Committee Chair Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) and State Sen. Joseph Lagana (D-Paramus), the so-called Transparency in Health and Sex Education Curriculum Act would require the state’s school districts to post their sex ed and health syllabi publicly and allow for comment from parents prior to the beginning of instruction. It echoes legislation pushed by Republican legislators for years to increase parental access to the state’s public education system.
“This bill will bring full transparency to our health and sex education curriculums in our 600-plus school districts by stopping the politically-coordinated misinformation campaign and further empowering parents by ensuring that their children are offered the opportunity for a comprehensive education,” Gopal said when he first proposed the bill last month.
But attendees at today’s hearing, incensed by the state’s soon-to-be-implemented standards which they claim will force schools to provide age-inappropriate instruction on gender and sexual orientation, said the bill doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Because the overarching state standards have already been approved, they said, a bill that simply improves parental access at the local level would make it hard for parents to actually change anything their children are being taught.
“Regardless of what you get to look at, regardless of how transparent these things are, [they’re] still going to go ahead, [they’re] still going to push this perversion on our children,” said Gregory Quinlan of the Center for Garden State Families, a socially conservative group. “Transparency doesn’t matter if you’re going to continue to do this ugly stuff.”
“We all want transparency, but not after the horse has been let out of the barn,” added Eveleth Roderer, a parent from Warren County.
Gopal responded by noting that it’s the state Board of Education’s responsibility to set statewide standards, and that his only mission with this bill is to support transparency – which he exasperatedly said the parents in attendance should support.
“This bill has to do with transparency in curriculums,” Gopal said. “Something you should all want, but for whatever reason [you] are opposed to this bill today.”
The educational standards at issue were approved in June 2020 with relatively little fanfare. It wasn’t until this year that they exploded into prominence, after sample materials from Westfield School District were shared by Republican legislators as examples of the supposed unsuitability of the statewide standards.
“Parents are telling us they do not understand how standards they view as extreme and age-inappropriate were adopted by an unelected, politically-appointed board, and they are outraged at how your administration is implementing them through the New Jersey Department of Education,” the Senate Republican leadership team said in a letter to Gov. Phil Murphy last month. “We should empower parents, not ignore them.”
Murphy has asked the state Department of Education to clarify the statewide standards, which do not themselves mandate any explicit material and simply advise school districts to teach on sex and gender-related issues. Many of those who testified today, however, called for a complete repeal of the standards, as did State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Oxford), a member of the committee.
“We believe the first step that must be accomplished to address the significant and legitimate concerns of parents is to repeal the controversial new sex education mandates completely, and to put decisions about how to teach sex education 100% into the hands of local school boards, parents, and their communities,” Doherty said.
Under current state law, parents can choose to opt their children out of sex education, but not of the rest of the curriculum; today’s bill also only concerned sex education. Other parts of the curriculum might touch on LGBTQ-related subjects, however, especially after the passage of a bill in December 2020 that expanded diversity instruction.
According to those who spoke in opposition to the bill, they have no animosity towards LGBTQ people themselves. “This is not to push LGBT students out – we care about them,” one said.
But many of their testimonies were nevertheless explicit in their condemnation of the LGBTQ community, with several attendees denying the existence of gender nonconforming people and Quinlan – a self-described former gay man – decrying homosexuality as a “religion” that has “no basis in fact.”
The method by which the bill was introduced was also called into question; though Gopal proposed it several weeks ago, the bill is not properly listed on today’s committee schedule and the full text remains difficult to access online.
“We come in here, we see a bill that we haven’t had time to review, and we’re expected to testify on it,” Quinlan said. “The disrespect to the people of New Jersey by the party in power when it comes to legislation has got to stop.”
Despite the myriad testimonies – including a modest number from supporters of the bill – that ended up taking more than two hours in total, the bill did pass the committee, with Doherty voting no and State Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Old Bridge) abstaining; all three Democrats voted yes.
After the meeting had concluded, Gopal said that many of the claims about school districts showing pornography or age-inappropriate content simply aren’t true and that the issue had become a “political football.”
“We tried to be welcoming of everyone’s opinions,” he said. “I’m surprised that more people don’t want transparency.”