Proposal that would restrict transgender students’ rights lacks support in Alaska Senate

the Alaska Senate
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, is seen before the start of a session of the Alaska Senate on Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

A day after Gov. Mike Dunleavy proposed legislation that would restrict the rights of transgender public school students and limit access to sex-education classes, leading members of the Alaska Senate said the governor’s bill will be heard in committee but appears to lack the support necessary to become law.

Members of the House’s Republican-led coalition majority said they support the ideas behind the legislation – which Dunleavy said would uphold parents’ rights – while lawmakers in the predominantly Democratic minority caucus said they would oppose it. Dunleavy is a Republican.

In the Senate, the governor’s proposal is known as Senate Bill 96 and has been referred to the judiciary committee, headed by Sen. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage.

Claman said he hasn’t yet studied the bill in depth, but he believes his district supports LGBTQ rights. At the same time, he said, “part of my job is to get along with the governor. That doesn’t mean I pass any bill he proposes, but at least I need to keep that in the equation about whether to hear the bill.”

Even if Claman schedules it for a hearing, there are three Democrats — including Claman — on the five-person committee.

Sen. Löki Tobin, D-Anchorage and one of those three, has already said she will not support the bill. The last member of the three, Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, also opposes the bill.

That makes it unlikely to advance.

“I think there’s plenty of reason to think that’s a fair assessment,” Claman said. 

And even if the bill were to bypass Claman’s committee, he said he doesn’t think there would be 11 votes in the Senate to pass it.

In the House, the governor’s proposal is known as House Bill 105 and has already been scheduled for an education committee hearing at 8 a.m. Monday. 

Rep. Tom McKay, R-Anchorage and a member of the committee, said on Tuesday — after the governor announced the bill but before the text was introduced — that he supports the ideas in it.

“I am a big advocate of parents’ rights,” he said. “As a father of five, my children belong to me, not to the school. When it comes to sex education and changing sexes, naughty books in the library and so on and so forth, I believe parents have every right to know what’s going on in their schools that we pay for.”

Though described by the governor as a parents’ rights bill, most of the provisions in the text of the legislation deal with restrictions on sex education and the rights of transgender students.

In other states, including Florida, similar measures have also been promoted using the “parents rights” label.

Among the changes proposed by the Dunleavy bill:

  • Parents would be required to provide written permission for their students to participate in sex-ed classes. Currently, parents are required to receive written notice before those classes and may opt their children out of the class. 
  • Transgender students would be required to use bathrooms designated for the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Teachers and administrators would be prohibited from using new names or pronouns used by students without permission from the students’ parents. 
  • School districts would be unable to conceal from parents their child’s physical, mental and medical health — something that includes the student’s gender identity — unless informing the parents could “result in child abuse or neglect.”
  • Parents would be informed that if the school district violates these rules, they have the ability to sue in court. Dunleavy’s proposed state budget includes funding for a state attorney to aid parents in prospective lawsuits. 

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District already has adopted some elements of the governor’s proposal, including the rules regarding bathrooms, but officials at the Association of Alaska School Boards and the National Education Association-Alaska said they were unaware of any other districts that have done so.

Lon Garrison, director of the school boards association, said that his organization has some concerns with the governor’s proposal. School boards represent local governing authority, and the statewide measure would eliminate local control on the issues it addresses.

The measure also creates concerns about children whose parents may not support them.

“How do we deal with that? How do we ensure those children are safe and protected and get the services they need?” Garrison said.

NEA-Alaska is the state’s largest teachers’ union, representing more than 12,000 people statewide. President Tom Klaameyer said by email that the union is still evaluating the governor’s bill but “are deeply troubled about the negative consequences this bill could have on our most vulnerable students and add more mandates to already overburdened public school employees.”

Klaameyer said the program would be difficult to implement, particularly in rural Alaska, where some schools lack reliable running water and functional bathrooms.

On the House floor, Rep. Andrew Gray, D-Anchorage and a gay man, said he grew up in Texas with parents who didn’t support his decisions. Because of that history, he said he adamantly opposes the governor’s concept.

“If and when these bills land in front of me, I will fight them with all my heart. They attack and harm our most vulnerable. We must fight them. Standing up for those without a voice, protecting those at most risk of harm, is the most noble purpose of government,” he said.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.

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