Back To School: The Politics of Sex Education in the States

Back To School: The Politics of Sex Education in the States

Robin Marty

A roundup of sex ed news as students across the country head back into the classroom.

Back to school time means many things: more homework, more juggling social events, and for many states facing a crisis of teen pregnancies and rising STI rates, it also means coming up with a better game plan for educating students about sex.

Both Minnesota and Virgina have been making big waves via their decisions to forego federal dollars for comprehensive sex education, while instead asking for funding for abstinence-only education programs that have been proven far less effective in protecting sexually active teens, and that also will cost the states matching grants from the federal government.

Florida, too, is going to have to make a choice on which funding path to go, and with its governor running for senate as an independent, the plan he picks may mean a lot, both to him politically, and to the children of the state.  Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida is urging Crist to commit to comprehensive sex education.

Via The Ledger:

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Gov. Crist has the opportunity to apply for PREP funds and reject failed abstinence-only-until-marriage funding, known as Title V. Over and over, programs taught under Title V have been discredited for their ineffectiveness, have been known to provide medical inaccuracies, and are taught using biased and fear-based tactics. Instead, PREP would offer sex education that is evidence-based, age-appropriate and medically accurate.

To date, millions of Florida’s taxpayer dollars have been wasted on failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. And as a result, many health outcomes among Florida teenagers continue to deteriorate.

Florida now ranks highest in the nation in cases of HIV infection diagnosed in the U.S. Florida also has the third-highest rate of AIDS cases nationwide. Additionally, Florida ranks 12th highest in the nation in teen births, rising by 7 percent in 2006 alone.

I urge all readers to contact Gov. Crist and urge him to join the growing number of states – by last count more than half the states – in applying for PREP funds. He must act by Monday.

For the state of Illinois, the choice was obvious, as they decisively went with the federal PREP funds.  Progress Illinois writes:

Tom Green, a spokesperson for the Illinois Department of Human Services, confirmed yesterday afternoon that state health officials did not apply for federal abstinence-only sex education funds made available through the federal health care reform package. Considering that Illinois would have had to fork over scarce state resources to qualify for the discredited Title V grants, it’s welcome news. As we wrote last week, the Quinn administration did seek out less restrictive and less costly Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) grants.

The debate on sex ed is always a hot one, and Montana is experiencing it as one side advocates for age-appropriate sexual information, and the other calls it propaganda and indoctrination.  And as always, the war always plays out on the opinion pages of newspapers.

One letter writer at the Helena Independent Record states:

Proposed is the naming of private body parts to kindergartners and an overly explicit explanation of different forms of sexual activity to fifth graders. Experts agree that teaching this will actually increase sexual activity in kids.

Sexually explicit “art” will be portrayed as acceptable. What one person might call “art,” another might call pornography. Is this appropriate for the classroom and who has the right to decide what to teach?

Why do we need to teach kids that it’s unkind to make fun of gay people? Don’t we need to teach them be kind to everyone? Tolerance can be taught without giving preferential treatment to gays.

Portraying abortion as birth control as well as redefining what a family is (in contradiction to the state law definition) has more to do with indoctrinating children on controversial issues than it does in promoting good health.


If the new curriculum is approved, many teachers may refuse to teach the material and large numbers of parents will refuse to let their children attend. The result will be that less sex education will actually be taught than before — unless you count second-hand discussion among peers.

If our true motives are to put the children first, the new curriculum should reflect high teaching standards without the influence of another agenda.

While another writes in that:

As it is now, few are well informed and many are misinformed. The misinformation spreads from peer to peer and that does not serve the purpose of good health. The aim should be to become comfortable with your body and knowledgeable about its functions as one develops. I often feel that those who are most strident in their opposition to basic sex education, and who are threatened by the thought of sex ed, are people who might themselves have benefited from an earlier and more honest sex education.

I applaud the curriculum committee, the school district and the school board as they step forward to do the right thing, which is to provide comprehensive health education and sex education to the students of Helena. We do not want our society to be ruled by those who shout the loudest, do the most name calling or send the most nasty e-mails. Nor should schools succumb to the very ignorance they are trying to dispel. I hope that the school board will stand firm on this issue and support the fine work which has been done.

And it’s not just letter writers in the state battling it out — the pro-abstinence side has even paid to bring an author to town to advocate against the new curriculum.  From the

Billings Gazette:

Miriam Grossman said she hopes her talks provide some clarity for the debate that surfaced in Helena after the curriculum committee presented the 62-page draft at a June meeting of the Helena School Board.

“I would not want my children exposed to what’s in there,” she said. “A child thinks different, experiences the world different than an adult. A child is not a miniature adult. Children are vulnerable in a way we as adults have forgot.”

Grossman, a child psychiatrist, medical doctor and author, spoke twice Wednesday after a group of opponents of the proposed curriculum funded her visit. About 600 people attended her afternoon talk at Carroll College and even more sat through the nearly two-hour evening event at Helena Middle School.

She said the proposal won’t help children understand their bodies and won’t empower them with information, but rather leave them misinformed and vulnerable.

Grossman addressed several specific parts of the draft curriculum. She said she would not teach third-graders that exchanging bodily fluids can give you deadly diseases, but would rather tell them that when they cough or sneeze they should cover their mouths not to spread germs.

“That’s enough,” she said.

Grossman said the document is not abstinence-based, which state standards require. She said it instead leaves it up for discussion, with the sentence “teenagers who decide to engage in sexual behaviors must also decide about pregnancy and STI/HIV prevention.”

In elementary school the proposed draft document teaches students “that barrier methods of contraception can … greatly reduce but not prevent sexually transmitted infections.” Grossman said diseases like herpes live in the skin not covered by condoms. She said the protection from condoms is 20 to 50 percent.

“Anyone who believes condoms will greatly reduce risk is living in la-la land,” she said.

Grossman also spent a lot of time talking about the biology of the cervix, and how until a female is in her 20s, the organ is susceptible to diseases because the cells have yet to build up in the transformation zone. Once girls are older, these cells thicken and provide females with natural protection against diseases, such as human papillomavirus, or HPV.

She said this is biological proof that young girls are not physically ready for sexual relations.

Still, some school systems are embracing comprehensive sex ed programs enthusiastically, like in Cleveland, where the state’s new Healthy Youth Act will be implemented this school year.  Much like its predecessor in Wisconsin, the Healthy Youth Act will bring age appropriate, comprehensive, fact based sexual education to the classrooms.  The Shelby Star has details, straight from the director of secondary ed.


John Goforth, director of secondary education, assuaged potential concerns about what will and will not be presented in the classroom.

“The policy specifically says what will be taught and specifically says contraceptives shall not be available or distributed on school property,” he said.

Goforth said abstinence is always their foremost message.

“We won’t be talking about abortion, we won’t be talking about lifestyles; we won’t be talking about a person’s partner choices…that’s not part of our curriculum,” he said.

Goforth said instruction will be limited to the facts.

“Here’s STDs, here’s how you get them and here’s how you avoid them,” he said. “We don’t demonstrate the use of contraceptives. We won’t demonstrate anything.”


Another point officials want to emphasize is the parents’ choice to opt out and have their children excluded from the instruction.

“They’re welcome to opt out…we respect that for sure,” Goforth said.

Administrators said all of the material that will be taught is available for viewing at each middle and high school’s media center.

Students who opt out of the program will be given alternate health assignments.

Goforth said parents will be sent a consent form and will have 60 days from the time a notice is sent home to make their decision.

Wisconsin schools should be receiving final approval from the schoolboard this month.

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