SEATTLE — Addressing the disintegration of traditional families, Washington lawmakers this month took a step in requiring schools to teach "family preservation" classes -- in essence making relationships as important as reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic.
The Legislature passed a bill, awaiting the governor's signature, that requires the state superintendent of public schools to develop a family preservation curriculum that school districts will be urged to use as a model.
Supporters say the classes would teach high school students how to form and maintain loving relationships, resolve conflicts, and deal with stress, grief and disappointment -- all vital to keeping families strong. A few other states have passed or are considering similar legislation, including Florida, New Jersey and New York.
Opponents say the measure could push schools into a realm in which they don't belong, namely defining what is right and wrong within families and idealizing a traditional "Beaver Cleaver" nuclear family that would marginalize others, such as same-sex couples, single parents and blended families.
"It seems innocent enough on its face. I mean what could be wrong with preserving the family, right?" said state Rep. Steve Kirby, a Democrat from Tacoma who opposes the measure. But Kirby said the language of the legislation was so broad that it gave individual school districts the license to veer into sensitive and personal, even private, issues.
Kirby says he is part of a blended family: He and his wife were previously married and now both have step-children. He said he didn't like the idea of "a teacher standing up in front of my son and giving him the impression that somehow his family is substandard."
"One of my concerns would be my son coming home and telling me, 'Guess what, Dad? We're doing things wrong,' " he said.
Children from other nontraditional families, such as those with same-sex or single parents, could also feel alienated, Kirby said.
The major force behind the legislation, Larry Kvamme, a citizen activist from Tacoma, said there was no hidden agenda in the law to advocate one form of family over another. The emphasis, he said, is to teach the importance of relationships and explore the dynamics that lead to either good relationships or bad ones.
According to Kvamme and sponsors of the bill, an average of 114 marriages and 75 divorces occur every day in Washington. Half of the divorces involve couples with children.
Kvamme said studies showed that children from broken or single-parent families did worse in school, had a higher chance of getting into trouble and were more likely to perpetuate a cycle of unstable relationships.
"This kind of teaching shouldn't really be considered controversial," Kvamme said. "The thrust is not in teaching values, it's in teaching personal skills."
The wording of the original bill was so strident that lawmakers made it clear that it would not pass. That version required all high schools to offer family preservation classes as electives. Instead, after some wrangling, legislators settled on a version that required only that the state superintendent create a family preservation curriculum, one that school districts would then be urged to use as a guide.
That curriculum, according to the superintendent's office, would include classes on developing "respectful and caring relationships in the family, workplace and community," and "integrating multiple life roles and responsibilities in family, work and community settings."
Kvamme and supporters plan to keep pushing the issue.
Roxanne Trees, a family-education director for the Seattle School District, said the plan was to lobby the state Board of Education to take the measure one step further by requiring that such classes be taught in high schools.
Trees, a former education chair for the American Assn. of Family and Consumer Sciences, an advocacy group, said such classes were part of a growing national movement to make schools more involved in teaching personal development skills to young adults.
Trees once taught a class on family education and relationships at Ingraham High School in Seattle. She said one of her teaching methods involved the use of role playing exercises to help teenagers get in touch with their emotions.
In one exercise, a student would sit in front of a chalkboard. On the board was a long list of emotions, such as anger, resentment, hurt and joy. One by one, other students would get in the subject's face and make declarative statements such as "You never do anything right. You make me sick," or "You were a big help, and I appreciate it."
After each statement, the student would point to the word that best described how the statement made him or her feel. The idea, Trees said, was that once the subject pinpointed his or her emotions, the student could then communicate it more easily to others.
Bernie Bagaoisan, a 1994 Ingraham graduate, recalls Trees' class. At the time, Bagaoisan's parents "worked all the time and had no time" for him and his younger brother. He said they were basically left to fend for themselves.
"We never learned the basic things about relationships, about treating people with respect and why that's important," he said. Bagaoisan credits Trees' class with helping improve his relationship with his parents -- and his future wife.
Rep. Dave Quall, a Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill, put it this way:
"You can make a case that the most important thing we'll do in this life is be part of a family," he said. And yet many young people "get very little preparation in this area.... We just thought this would be a way for schools to do their part."