By Madison Hirneisen
(The Center Square) – A panel of Virginia state Senate lawmakers defeated a torrent of Republican-backed education bills Thursday, including measures to require schools to maintain a catalog and identify library books with “graphic sexual content,” and prevent transgender students from participating in sports aligned with their gender identity.
The Democrat-majority Senate Committee on Education and Health slashed a number of bills Thursday that had passed through the Republican-controlled House on a party line vote. Several of the bills defeated were touted by the Republican patrons as “parental choice” and “parental rights” measures – a topic Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigned on heavily during his run for governor.
The bills defeated in the Senate committee included multiple measures involving school policies surrounding transgender students. One of the measures would have required sports teams sponsored by public schools to be “expressively designated” based on biological sex, and would have prohibited any sports team designated for females to be open to students whose “biological sex is male.”
The bill received sweeping opposition from the ACLU and Equality Virginia, who deemed the bill an anti-trans measure. A similar bill introduced in the Senate was defeated by the same committee earlier this month.
Another measure defeated would have required public school principals to inform at least one parent if a minor student expresses to a teacher or school staff that they are experiencing “gender incongruence.” The bill also specifies parents must be notified if the student requests school staff participate in “social affirmation” of “gender incongruence,” or if the student is actively transitioning to a gender different from their biological sex while at school.
“We’re dealing with a situation which could potentially involve a school bringing parents into a situation whereby a child was actively transitioning in the school,” the bill’s patron, Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, said Thursday.
The bill received pushback from rights groups and education organizations, including the ACLU and the Virginia Education Association, who argued the measure would result in the “forced outing” of LGBTQ students, and would be harmful to vulnerable students who may need to receive counseling in a school setting.
Sen. Chapman Petersen, D-Fairfax, said Thursday he “believes strongly in parental involvement,” but had concerns about this bill almost resembling a “mandatory reporting bill,” which outlines when schools must report instances of abuse and neglect among students. Petersen argued this bill would result in students being put “on blast” after a conversation about gender transitioning with a teacher or guidance counselor, because the school staffer would be required to report it.
“I feel like this bill, rather than solving the issue, would exacerbate the issue,” Petersen said. “The issue is parents talking to their children and children talking to their parents and children having the confidence to speak to a teacher and not having to worry about getting put on blast.”
The Senate panel also defeated legislation requiring public schools to provide an electronic catalog of all materials available in the school library with designations for books that contain “graphic sexual content.” The bill would have also allowed parents to restrict their student’s access to any materials in the catalog identified as containing graphic sexual content.
The bill’s author, Del. Tim Anderson, R-Norfolk, handed out printed examples of books with sexual content, and distributed samples to lawmakers during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday. The delegate argued the bill would not remove the books from the library, but it would give parents a say in what materials their students could check out from the school library.
“[This bill is] not trying to take them [the books] out; it’s just trying to say if I’m a parent, I should have the right to exclude my child from having access to these books,” Anderson said.
The bill was opposed by the Virginia Education Association and public school educators, who argued the measure was redundant. Speakers in opposition noted school divisions and school boards already have authority to remove books from libraries.
Others in opposition to the bill argued it would increase the workload burden on school librarians.
“These requirements are going to tax educators and their demanding workloads and could cause libraries to close – as we’ve seen – as librarians review thousands of texts in their collections to make sure they are following this legislation to a tee,” Virginia Association of School Librarians President Nathan Sekinger said Wednesday.
Among the other bills defeated by the the Senate committee Thursday, was a measure to allow schools to hire K-9 detection teams, and a bill to protect the “fundamental right of parents in the education of their children.” Additionally, the committee killed a bill to require opportunities for “parental involvement,” which would include giving parents the chance to receive written advance notice of speeches, presentations and performances at schools and opt their child out.
The committee also voted to defeat House Bill 2490, a measure that would provide a framework for the establishment of division laboratory schools as a public, non-religious alternative school within a local school division. Lab schools are established through a partnership between higher education institutions and local school divisions.
HB 2490 also proposed the creation of a Laboratory School Fund, which would be used to fund the establishment of lab schools across the Commonwealth. In the House proposed budget amendments, lawmakers included an additional $50 million in funding to add to the $100 million already set aside for lab schools.
“Every public school has a community of different needs that they serve, and this allows our superintendents to look at the public schools and if they so desire, classify them as divisional lab schools, give our teachers and administrators more flexibility in classrooms than what they have today and then be able to draw down some of that $100 million that is up there in that lab school fund,” Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, the bill’s author, said in support of his measure.
The bill received pushback from lawmakers due to a provision allowing division lab schools to be exempted from laws that govern other schools in the Commonwealth. Specifically, Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, voiced concern about the bill exempting the lab schools from the Standards of Quality, which are outlined in the Code of Virginia to specify certain requirements public schools must meet.
“Those are points of serious concern for me if we are going to be taking out requirements for standards of quality and learning,” Hashmi said.
The bill was ultimately defeated in an eight to six vote with one abstention.