Will Texas Sex Ed Come of Age?
After 23 years, the State Board of Education might be ready to make some changes
In a state where progressive policy changes can't seem to happen too fast, there's a chance that Texas students may finally receive more comprehensive sex education come this fall.
On Monday, the State Board of Education heard public testimony on its upcoming overhaul of statewide standards for teaching sex education and health in public schools – requirements that haven't been updated in 23 years. More than 260 people signed up to testify at the SBOE's 16-hour virtual meeting on Monday. The proposed revisions recommend that students receive "abstinence-plus" (as opposed to "abstinence only") instruction at younger ages – with middle schoolers learning the "effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods, including the prevention of STDs, keeping in mind the effectiveness of remaining abstinent until marriage."
That's the existing standard for high school "Health 1" courses, which aren't required for graduation. State statutes do mandate health instruction for K-8 students; districts aren't required to include sex education in those offerings, but if they do, instructors must emphasize abstinence first. Last fall, Austin Independent School District updated its comprehensive sex education program for the first time in 10 years.
The majority of speakers spoke in favor of more comprehensive sex ed, including standards for learning about sexuality and gender identity and expression. That isn't mentioned in the proposed revisions, but many advocates emphasized it's essential not only for queer and trans students, but all students. "The importance of inclusion of the LGBTQ community in sex education cannot be overstated," said Out Youth's Texas GSA Network Coordinator Heather Frederick. "Research shows that LGBTQ-related resources in schools not only create visibility and belonging for students in the queer community, but LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum helps create a safe and fair learning environment for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, and are linked with less bullying, more safety, and less absenteeism."
Christopher Hamilton, CEO of Texas Health Action – a sexual health provider that operates Central Texas' Kind Clinics – spoke to the direct harm caused when accurate sex ed is lacking: "One of our outreach coordinators was asked by a sexually active young man, 'When I take my sister's birth control, I won't get my girlfriend pregnant, right?'" Jules Mandel, outreach and advocacy coordinator for the Texas Freedom Network, said the revisions' inclusion of contraception and STI prevention ("common sense standards") were representative of many Texas teenagers' reality. According to data in the TFN Education Fund's 2017 report on sex education in Texas public schools, 60% of high school seniors have already had sex, and most hadn't used a condom the last time they did. "Our public schools can be a safe place that provides students the reliable information they need to make healthy, responsible decisions," said Mandel.
But of course some spoke in opposition to the revisions, such as It Takes a Family's Monica Cline, a former sex educator, now an abstinence-only zealot. She and other "sexual risk avoidance" proponents argue that abstinence until marriage, not safer sex practices, should be all that students are taught; otherwise, they will be pressured into sexual behavior. Cline told the board, "Parents should be educated and have these conversations with their children at home, but it should be at their own pace and their child's pace, and not forced on them by a mandate in their public schools."
SBOE member Marisa Perez-Diaz of Converse – one of the 15-member board's four Democrats – countered those claims, pointing to Texas' 111,000 homeless youth, including those in foster care and many who identify as LGBTQIA, who don't have caregivers to provide sex education info. "When we're talking about sexual education in schools, it's not coercion into practicing this behavior, it's providing fact-based information so that if the students make that choice, then they're actually making responsible, well-informed decisions, as opposed to going to their 13-year-old peer who doesn't know anything," said Perez-Diaz.
No action was taken Monday. Another public hearing is planned for September, before the board is expected to take a final vote on the revisions in November.