The Sacramento Bee: California vaccine bill stalls as parents worry about keeping kids in school

By: Jeremy B. White

April 15, 2015

Bowing to concerns from parents and lawmakers that children would be denied an education, a state senator on Wednesday delayed a vote on a bill requiring most California parents to vaccinate their children as a condition of enrolling them in private or public schools.

As they did for last week’s vote, hundreds of parents, many trailing or toting children, massed in the corridors of the state Capitol to voice their strenuous opposition to Senate Bill 277. They implored lawmakers not to pass a bill they denounced for allowing the state to dictate how people raise their children.

But while lawmakers on the Senate Health Committee last week sided with the proponents framing the measure as a bulwark for public health, on Wednesday members of the Senate Education Committee were more sympathetic to critics who said they would be forced to deprive their kids of the education to which they are constitutionally entitled.

“The bigger question here is the penalty for not immunizing their kids is that you have to ... home-school ... and I don’t think that’s a solution to the problem,” said Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada Flintridge, who leads the Senate’s education panel. She questioned how to balance “the purpose of public safety and the right for everyone to have access” to education.

With both Democratic and Republican lawmakers expressing similar doubts, Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, agreed to postpone a vote on his bill until next Wednesday.

“If I were you, I would not take a vote today,” Liu warned Pan at the close of an hours-long hearing. “Otherwise I don’t think your bill proceeds out of this committee.”

Between now and then, Pan and his allies will try to negotiate amendments to the bill to win over lawmakers on the education panel.

“If there are changes that will make the bill better, we should take the time to consider them,” Pan said in a statement.

California is one of 19 states permitting parents to cite a personal belief exemption if they wish to enroll children in school without being fully vaccinated. Bursts of illnesses like whooping cough and measles have led legislators to propose closing off the personal belief avenue via Senate Bill 277. Pan called a recent measles outbreak at Disneyland “symptomatic of the low immunization rates” prevailing in pockets around the state.

“We’ve basically been accumulating larger and larger numbers of unvaccinated people, Pan said, “which is part of the reason this measles outbreak was able to spread.”

In his effort to counteract that trend, Pan has won the support of public health officials, medical professionals and educators. School groups like the districts encompassing Los Angeles and San Francisco, the California State Parent-Teacher Association and the California School Boards Association back the bill, though the powerful California Teachers Association has not taken a formal support or oppose position.

“The school community clearly recognizes what is in best interest of school kids,” said Sacramento City Unified School District board member Jay Hansen.

But many of the parents who lined up for well over an hour to testify said the hazards of vaccines outweigh the benefit of keeping kids in school. Many opponents of the bill contend that vaccines pose a serious health risk, citing anecdotes of children injured by vaccines.

Numerous parents testified that they would pull their kids out of school if the bill becomes law, though some said they could not afford to home-school their children. In requiring vaccinations as a prerequisite for enrolling children in school, detractors said, the bill would legalize institutional discrimination.

“A measles outbreak does not justify the elimination of the fundamental right to education for a substantial minority of California citizens,” said Robert Moxley, a Wyoming-based lawyer who represents people injured by vaccines.

Senators echoed those concerns. Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, called SB 277 “draconian.” Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, declined to support the bill, saying it could put an obstacle between children and education.

“Home-schooling my children would not have been option for my husband and I had we chose not to vaccinate our children,” Leyva said. “I was working, my husband was working, and I don’t even know that I would have been the best person to home-school my children.”

The sole lawmaker who said he would vote for the bill, Sen. Marty Block of San Diego, demanded a “better or less restrictive educational solution” ahead of a Senate floor vote, should the bill advance that far. In so saying he aligned himself with legislators urging Pan to return to the drawing board.

“I don’t think it’s fully cooked,” added Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, who said he would oppose the bill.

Even parents who already educate their children at home are wary, according to a representative of a home-schooling organization. Lawmakers cited questions about access to public school curricula and the treatment of home-based private schools.

“Most of the folks that I work with are continuing to oppose the bill,” said Nathan Pierce, a legislative liaison for the Private & Home Educators of California.

Worries about children missing an education overrode Pan’s argument that SB 277 ensures access to education for children who cannot be vaccinated, like those suffering from weakened immune systems.

“What about the rights of those families to bring their children to school without being at risk of potentially catching a serious disease?” Pan asked.

While Pan noted that many schools have fallen below the 90 percent immunization rate threshold needed to establish the “herd immunity” protecting such children, skeptics called overall immunization levels sufficient. The statewide opt-out rate for kindergarteners was 2.5 percent at the start of this school year, a slight decrease from the former year, though some districts and counties sat well above that.

“My reading of the community immunity levels was that we’re pretty much there in California,” said Hancock, who saw multiple constituents testify against the bill on Wednesday.

Daily attendance numbers play a role in determining how much money schools receive – the more students in seats, the more dollars schools receive. Though the issue did not surface at Wednesday’s hearing, Pan spokeswoman Shannan Martinez said critics have raised the prospect of lost revenue in office visits with lawmakers.

“We’re hearing this flawed message a lot,” she said. A fact sheet circulated by Pan’s office rejected that argument as a “scare tactic.”

While the bill would allow parents to get exemptions for medically fragile children, critics call the bar to get those exemptions prohibitively high. A mother opposed to the bill recounted going to great lengths to win exemptions for two children she described as having compromised immune systems.

“It is difficult for doctors to understand what qualifies for a medical exemption, and they are extremely reluctant to write one for fear of retaliation or liability,” said Lisa Bakshi of Roseville. “There is no crisis,” she added. “Our students are safe.”