A bill that would restrict biological males identifying as females from playing school sports in Arkansas passed the Senate Education Committee on Monday (March 8), while a bill that would require school districts to return to state control after no more than five years failed.
Senate Bill 354 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act, passed the committee by a 5-3 vote, with the committee’s five Republicans voting yes and its three Democrats voting no. The bill would prohibit state government entities, licensing organizations, and athletic associations from taking adverse actions against schools that maintain separate sports based on gender. Students and schools harmed by violations would be entitled to injunctive relief and monetary damages. It would apply to public schools, private schools that play public schools, and intramural and club sports.
In response to questions by Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, Irvin said biological transexual males competing in women’s sports has not been an issue in Arkansas. However, she said it could become one quickly. Matt Sharp, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said his group was representing four biological female athletes in Connecticut who lost track races to biological transexual males competing as females.
Irvin displayed a soccer ball signed by female players on a Mountain View team where she was a volunteer coach. She said the bill would protect the gains female athletes have made over the last 50 years. When Chesterfield said the bill is an “anti-transgender bill,” Irvin replied that it is a “pro-women’s bill.”
“This bill is about girls,” she said. “It’s about women, and it’s about protecting women’s rights to have a level playing field when it comes to sports and competition and athletics.”
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said the Arkansas Activities Association, the governing body for scholastic sports, already has rules regarding transgender athletes. Irvin replied that the Legislature sets policy. When Elliott asked how schools would know to ban an athlete, Sharp replied that the Connecticut athletes were open about their gender identities and that athletes undergo sports physicals.
Opponents of the bill included Holly Dickson, state director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arkansas chapter. Dixon said the Title IX federal law and the U.S. Constitution protect transgender students’ access to activities consistent with their gender identities. She said the bill would violate students’ right to equal protection under the law, their right to privacy, and their right to be free from unreasonable searches. She said the bill would make all female athletes vulnerable to questions and scrutiny, and reinforce the stereotype that females are weaker while reinforcing the stereotype that transexual individuals are misfits who don’t belong.
Also speaking against the bill was Dr. Janet Cathey, a Little Rock obstetrician-gynecologist who said she has treated many transgender patients. She said human biology does not always fit into categories. She said gender identity is innate and can’t be changed, and that her patients have very early memories of identifying as transexual. They decide to identify as such only after a tremendous struggle, and sports has never been an issue.
Speaking for the bill was Dr. Michelle Lynch, executive director of the Arkansas State Teachers Association. She said 87% of her membership surveyed supported the bill while 8% were opposed. She said commenters offered care and concern for transgender students, but they also wanted competition to be fair. Beth Steltzer, a powerlifter who founded the national group Save Women’s Sports, spoke in favor of the bill. She said powerlifting had helped her overcome post-traumatic stress disorder caused by domestic violence, but males have a significant advantage. She said legislators shouldn’t wait until females are injured competing against biological males.
The bill is part of the legislative package proposed by the Republican Women Legislative Caucus.
LOCAL SCHOOL CONTROL BILL
The committee did not pass Senate Bill 314 by Elliott, which would require school districts under state control to be returned to local control after no more than five years if they have a democratically elected school board. The committee had four votes for and three against, which was one vote short of passage. The bill had the support of the committee’s three Democrats along with Sen. Charles Beckham, R-McNeil.
Elliott is a retired teacher representing Little Rock. The Little Rock School District remains under partial state control more than six years after it was taken over by the state in 2015 because six of its 48 schools were in academic distress. She said the state has a “pattern” of taking over school districts with high minority populations.
While the district elected a school board in November, the state retains the ability to hire and fire the superintendent. Education Commissioner Johnny Key said the district had deficit spending this year and must have a balanced budget in order to return to full local control. The Department of Education is opposed to the bill, Key said.
Greg Adams, a Little Rock School Board member who was serving during the takeover and was elected in November, said the budget with deficit spending was written while the district was under state control.
Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said the bill would clarify existing law so that five years would equal five years. He said it took four years for the state to even provide the district exit criteria.
Also speaking for the bill was Carol Fleming, a speech language pathologist who works for the Little Rock district and is the president of the Arkansas Education Association, which represents teachers.