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Education Access Concerns Hold California Vaccine Bill in Committee

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, left, talks with Senate Education Committee member Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, about the concerns she had about the measure he and Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, right, co-authored.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

After almost four hours of public testimony and deliberation, a California Senate committee held a bill that would require almost all kids attending school to be vaccinated. The hearing drew hundreds of people to the hallways of the state Capitol building.

Lines of people snaked around the hallways outside the Senate Education Committee hearing, some came with strollers or babies in their arms. Most were there to voice opposition. A volunteer walked up and down the fourth floor trying to maintain order.

“We gotta keep quiet and we have a fire marshall warning," the volunteer says.

Organizers say some people came in charter buses from Southern California. Noelle Foster came from Carmichael.

"If I am coerced into vaccinating despite my feeling that it would be very very dangerous for my children, I would have to homeschool them until they’re 18, risk perhaps them being discriminated against or segregated," she says.

Inside the hearing, public testimony raised similar concerns.

The bill's author, Democratic State Senator Richard Pan listened to speakers, then defended his proposal to eliminate personal belief exemptions for vaccinations.

"We've basically been increasing and accumulating larger and larger amounts of unvaccinated people, which is part of the reason the measles outbreak was able to spread in this last outbreak," Pan says.

Unvaccinated kids would not be able to attend public, private or charter schools under the bill. They would have to be homeschooled. Education committee members from both parties were critical - one called the measure "draconian" another said it could create an education system with second-class citizens. 

"What is the likelihood of harm if we continue as we're doing now, of harm to the students who are vaccinated, who go to school with non-vaccinated students," says Democratic State Senator Marty Block. "Is it a hundred percent chance that students will come down with deadly disease? Of course not. If there is an infintessimal chance that students are going to be infected by the non-vaccinated students, then it seems crazy to force non-vaccinated students to be homeschooled or not educated at all."

Questions focused on the education that would be available for unvaccinated kids. What if a parent of an unvaccinated child couldn't afford to homeschool? Would the children have access to the public school curriculum? Would kids learning at home be able to interact with others in the learning process?

"Again the purpose is to try to protect the general community,"says Pan.

Committee Chair Carol Liu didn't question Pan's intent to raise vaccination rates. But she did have concerns.

"I understand the purpose, and the public health purpose is very important, and I do believe in immunization," she says. "But the larger question here us that the penalty to not immunizing is you have to homeschool or take the kids out of public school and I don't think that's a solution to the problem."

Liu suggested Senator Pan take a week to answer lawmakers' questions. The committee will vote on the bill next Wednesday -- but there will be no public testimony.