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June 14, 2022

Pennsylvania bill would limit discussions of gender identity, sexual orientation in elementary schools

The legislation includes a proposal that would require parental notification of information being taught in the classroom

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The "Empowering Families in Education Act," a bill prohibiting formal discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in Pennsylvania elementary schools, was introduced in the state Senate last week. Lancaster Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin believe the legislation is effective at providing protections for students.

Schools in Pennsylvania could prohibit formal discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in elementary schools, as a bill to promote transparency for parents was recently introduced in the state Senate.

The "Empowering Families in Education Act" was announced on June 8 by Lancaster Sens. Ryan Aument and Scott Martin. They believe the bill is effective at providing protections for students and noted it's not meant to be a version of Florida's controversial "Don't Say Gay" bill, which bans instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-3.

The bill presents a set of proposals to promote transparency and require parental notification of information regarding their children, including what they're being taught in the classroom. It would begin formal discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in middle and high schools, in accordance with Pennsylvania's school standards for general sex education. 

In a shift from previous curriculum transparency bills — which have become popular in Republican-led state legislatures throughout the country — the bill would provide exemptions to parental notification rules if it can be demonstrated that disclosing information to parents would result in abuse or abandonment of a minor. 

"Some of the discussions that concerned parents have brought to our attention are formal and led by the teacher, while others are organic and initiated by students," said both senators. "But many of these discussions are occurring without the knowledge or consent of the parents, and we believe this is wrong. Parents have a fundamental right to decide the educational, moral, ideological, and religious upbringing of their children without unreasonable government interference in the classroom undermining that right." 

Aument said that children who are too young to be taught general sex education by Pennsylvania's standards are also too young to be taught about gender identity and sexual orientation. He believes both topics are complex and require age-appropriate instruction. 

The bill stipulates that school personnel — including teachers and school administrators — must remain neutral and use existing frameworks for supporting diverse religious beliefs, in order to "prevent government endorsement of beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools."

If a student asks a teacher or member of school staff a specific question regarding sexual orientation or gender identity, they are permitted to answer, according to the bill. Teachers and school personnel are able to provide support services to those students provided they have permission from a parent. 

The Pennsylvania State Education Association responded to the co-sponsorship memo when it was first circulated last week, telling Penn Live that they have concerns about the legislation. 

"PSEA has serious concerns about any effort aimed at censoring educators or preventing them from valuing, affirming, and supporting students because of their sexual orientation or gender identity," said Chris Lilienthal, a union spokesperson. "Once politicians start censoring what teachers say and how they do their jobs, there is no telling how far that censorship will extend or what they will want to censor next. It's a very slippery slope."

On a webpage describing and dispelling myths about the legislation, the senators examined several examples of discussions they've reportedly heard from parents in counties throughout Pennsylvania. 

In Philadelphia, a teacher reported that their school was allowing college students and other speakers to discuss LGBTQ issues with elementary school-aged students without prior parental consent. 

In neighboring Montgomery County, Aument said that a parent of a kindergarten student was told that one of their child's classmates identifies as transgender at 5 years old and that the class read books about gender fluidity – otherwise known as changes to an individual's gender identity over time. 

Neither of these reports are sourced on Aument's webpage. Still, there has been a growing controversy about discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity throughout the country in recent months. 

In New Jersey, sex education standards passed in summer 2020 resurfaced amid concerns from parents that they were not properly notified of the changes to the curriculum. 

Approved changes include medically-accurate definitions of body parts, including genitals, by the end of second grade, lessons on understanding self-identity and understanding the differences between gender identity and sexual orientation. 

At the time, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy noted that he would consider changes to the standards if enough parents appear concerned. 

The New Jersey Board of Education said that sample lesson plans and instructional materials that bolstered Republican lawmakers and parents were not approved by the education agency and are not representative of how those lessons would be taught in schools. 

A previous curriculum transparency bill, which passed both the state House and Senate in October, was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf, who remarked that it required censoring content and restricting instruction. That bill would have required school administrators to routinely update course syllabi, descriptions of courses and state academic standards they adhere to and links to textbooks used in class. 

The Wolf administration was quick to criticize the bill, just as Wolf criticized the "Don't Say Gay" bill when it was signed into Florida law in March. 

"The governor has made it clear time and time again that Pennsylvania is welcoming to all, and hate has no place here, and he would veto any legislation that discriminates against LGBTQIA+ Pennsylvanians," said Elizabeth Rementer, press secretary for Wolf's office. "It's a disgrace that Pennsylvania Republicans are pushing through LGBTQIA+ discrimination legislation during Pride Month." 

Some Democratic lawmakers, including Allegheny County Sen. Lindsey Williams, told CBS Pittsburgh that she's skeptical the bill would be any different to similar measures introduced nationally to "chill" conversations about gender identity and sexual orientation. 

She's worried that it will have an adverse impact on LGBTQ students, particularly those who are transgender. 

Aument and Martin hope to have their legislation passed before July 4, though it is not likely to be signed by Wolf.