Two Democratic senators voted with Republicans in committee to advance Senator Siobhan Dunnavant’s (R-Henrico) SB 656 requiring Virginia public schools to notify parents about sexually explicit instructional material, allow parental review, and provide non-explicit alternatives. The bill instructs the Department of Education to create model policies; if passed, school boards would be required to pass similar policies.
“This is the opportunity for parents to have a conversation with their child,” Dunnavant said in the Senate Committee on Education and Health on Thursday.
“These kinds of materials that are being presented in school as an opportunity to develop that relationship between the parent and the child, talk about uncomfortable and challenging things,” Dunnavant said. “We heard in testimony from the subject matter experts that there was not a consistent policy across the school boards in Virginia, and that it was extremely variable. And as a result, having clear guidelines from the Department of Education would accomplish exactly what everybody thinks already exists, but it doesn’t.”
Debate over the bill in committee reflected the broader political discussion around school instructional materials. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed a similar bill during his term, and that record became an issue during the 2021 election cycle when outrage over sexually explicit books in schools and the need to increase parental oversight in schools became a key Republican issue. Democrats highlighted books by Black authors that were among those targeted by Republicans, and warned that the calls to ban certain materials smacked of book-burning.
“We heard from educators who pointed out that they have the competency, they have the training, they have the professionalism to be in a position to select instructional materials that are age- appropriate and that is part of their responsibility. And they take that very seriously,” Senator Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) said in comments opposing the bill. “Parents are intimately involved in the process. They have opportunities to be part of a parent-teacher committee. They have opportunity to share feedback on instructional materials, they have the opportunity to request that their child be offered alternate material.”
When Republican Glenn Youngkin won election as governor, he promised more parental involvement in schools, but with Democratic control of the Senate, some of his key policy goals are likely doomed.
On Thursday, Senator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) and Senator Lynwood Lewis, Jr. (D-Accomack) broke with the other Democrats on committee to advance the bill to the Senate floor. Their votes create a path for the bill, setting up a chance for a key education policy win for Youngkin in the General Assembly.
Republicans only need one Democratic state senator to support the bill on the Senate floor to create a tie that Republican Lieutenant Governor Winsome Earle-Sears can break; the vote is expected this week. If passed, the bill will head to the Republican-controlled House of Delegates which is likely to pass it, sending it to Youngkin for final approval.
“This is a parental notification. It just says the Board shall come up with a model policy on parental notification,” Petersen said. “You know we’re supposed to say the buzzwords, but this is a parental notification. So I don’t have a problem with the legislation.”
The committee killed several other Republican bills, including Senator Travis Hackworth’s (R-Tazewell) bill eliminating a requirement that school boards adopt transgender policies, Senator Mark Obenshain’s (R-Rockingham) bill to expand charter schools, and Senator Bill DeSteph’s (R-Virginia Beach) bill to require school districts to hire at least one school resource officer.
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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Lynwood Lewis, Jr.” by Senate of Virginia. Photo “Chap Petersen” by Fairfax Senator. Background Photo “Classroom” by Wokandapix.