From the Statehouse

Senate passes sex education bill

Updated March 18 – The Senate Monday voted 20-15 to pass the comprehensive sex education bill.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora

The vote came after 45 minutes of discussion that consisted primarily of Republican senators coming to the microphone to oppose the bill, mostly on moral grounds. The vote fell along party lines, with majority Democrats backing the bill. (House passage of the bill also was along party lines.)

Here’s a sampling of some of the opposition comments:

“This isn’t about parents teaching their children, this is about the state taking over the role of parents. … There is no room for teaching solid moral values. … What about staying morally pure? … Have we become so jaded as to right and wrong?” – Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud

“We have forgotten what morality is. … Sexual activity is a sacred thing between a man and a woman after marriage. … [The bill has] “an agenda to have a free-flowing sexual society. We’ve seen where that’s got us in the last 30 years.” – Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley

“For so many years we have been taking power away from the family. … We can’t even discipline our children in the way we think appropriate. … We can’t even have our kids work on the farm anymore.” – Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins

“I think sex education is appropriate … but I think this goes too far. … I think the family is the best place for these kinds of conversation to happen.” Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango

The measure returns to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.

Text of March 15 story follows.

The comprehensive sex education bill has passed its first floor test in Senate after a long debate that featured discussion of body parts, sexual diseases, agency infighting, government tyranny and teen psychology.

The debate was part of what turned out to be a long, ideological day at the Capitol Friday, during which both houses had protracted debates over gun-control legislation and the House wrangled over abortion.

The sex-education measure, House Bill 13-1081, has been controversial every step of the way since it had its first, six-hour hearing in a House committee on Feb. 7.

The bill wouldn’t impose any uniform new sex ed requirements on Colorado schools nor override existing state content standards on health education. Rather, it would create a new grant program, to be funded with expected federal and private funds, within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Schools that wanted grants would have to abide by standards set in the bill for “age-appropriate, culturally sensitive, and comprehensive human sexuality education.”

Prime sponsor Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, noted that teen pregnancies and some sexually transmitted infections are down in Colorado, but “this is still a very significant issue in our state,” with 15 babies born to teen moms in Colorado every day. “That’s preventable” with better sex education, she said.

Critics of the bill, primarily conservative Republicans, have several objections:

Abstinence: The chief critic of the bill was Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who criticized a health department report on teen sexual health for slighting abstinence. “My deep suspicion is this is about anything but abstinence,” Lundberg said. Democrats, with some Republican votes, added an amendment that beefed up language about the importance of abstinence.

Parental involvement: The House amended the bill to require the health department to appoint a parent to the advisory committee that will oversee the program. Lundberg tried various amendments that would have required the State Board of Education to appoint two parents to the panel, but those changes were rebuffed.

Big government: “I am the parent here, not this Senate, not the department of health, not the Department of Education. … It’s none of your business. Stay out of my family’s life,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch. Lundberg grumbled about “busybody social engineering of everybody’s life.”

Homosexuality: The bill specifies that sex education should be sensitive to the needs of gay and lesbian students, which has made some Republicans uncomfortable. Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, complained, “This is not about sex education, this is about an agenda of the left to promote gay and lesbian sex education.”

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, responded to all the criticism by saying, “I’m pretty sad that this bill is being perceived as a radical bill … or promotion of unusual sexual practices. … I would think we would want some medically based information. Many people believe we shouldn’t talk about sex in school or that we can just tell kids not to have sex and they won’t. That’s not reality.”

The bill also has a subtext of agency infighting. The State Board of Education recently voted to oppose the bill and sent a letter to every senator.

Lundberg repeatedly hammered the point that CDE, not the health department, should run the program. Todd replied that CDE would have a seat on the advisory board and that the bill doesn’t touch state health content standards.

SBE members complained about the bill during a meeting earlier in the week. “We’ve been chasing this from behind from the beginning,” said chair Paul Lundeen of Monument. He said the move to take CDE out of the process was a “strategic” one by others.

The Senate will have to take a final recorded vote on the bill before it can return to the House for consideration of amendments.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.