Last year, when I was working on a story about sex education in Texas, I was looking around for statistics that presented what high school kids were actually learning in the classroom. Certainly, loads of other statistics were available. For example, surveys showed that more than half of Texas students were losing their virginity in high school and a startling number weren’t using condoms. They also showed that few parents were talking to their kids about sex. Few churches addressed the issue. What message were the students getting from the schools? The state didn’t have that information, just TEKS guidelines. And while the Texas Freedom Network was on the case, having mailed open records requests to all 1,031 districts, the documents were trickling in slowly.
Now, I figured the number of kids receiving abstinence-only instruction would be high. But last week when the TFN released the report “ Just Say Don’t Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools ,” I read it and gasped. Ninety-four percent of Texas high school students receive abstinence-only education, 3.6 percent hear an abstinence-plus message, and 2.3 percent skip sex ed altogether. This, even though a 2004 poll conducted by the Scripps Research Center in Abilene states that 90 percent of Texans are in favor of teaching more than abstinence.
The discrepancy is jarring and like you, probably, I didn’t trust the Scripps poll on sight. But I had tracked down the guy who conducted the poll for Scripps, and he said that one thousand Texans in a random telephone survey were asked this question: “More than 80,000 Texas teenagers become pregnant every year. Do you favor or oppose teaching public school students with age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education that includes information on abstinence, birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV?” Ninety percent were in favor. Six percent opposed. One percent was neutral. Two percent said “depends what age.” One percent wasn’t sure.
This question wasn’t as illuminating as it could have been. Abstinence-only teachers I had spoken with argued that they do teach about birth control and STDs, albeit in a manner that shows the flaws in barrier methods and birth control. A good follow-up question for the Scripps researchers would have been, “Do you want your kids to hear about birth control and prevention methods with message X or message Y?” Unfortunately, that wasn’t asked. But one of the poll’s other questions does provide a good clue about what Texans want their kids to know. When asked, “Do you agree or disagree that minors (under 18 years old) at risk of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, should have access to confidential health care services, including birth control and contraceptives?” Sixty-six percent agreed, 29 percent disagreed, and 5 percent didn’t know.
That’s pretty straightforward. If 66 percent of the Texas population thinks that minors should have access to birth control and contraceptives, I find it hard to believe that they meant for kids to be given the common abstinence-only messages: using these devices lead to pregnancy, STDs, depression, an unhappy future marriage, cervical cancer, infertility, radical hysterectomy, low self-esteem, poverty, and death.
Why, then, are the overwhelming majority of students receiving the abstinence-only curricula? After all, the state mandates that districts set up School Health Advisory Councils (SHACs), and you’d think the SHACs would be somewhat aligned with the poll. But here’s the kicker: The TFN report found that 80.5 percent of the districts couldn’t produce any formal SHAC recommendation. In other words, the communities have no official input. Who knows why the decisions are made?
Two reasons come to mind. First, abstinence-only curricula are funded in Texas with $18 million in federal funds, so districts opting to teach abstinence-only can present material for little, if any, money, whereas a district choosing a comprehensive or abstinence-plus plan would have to pay out of pocket. (Comprehensive and abstinence-plus programs stress abstinence as a first choice but try to offer information on contraceptives and condoms with less judgment.) Second, superintendents are understandably sensitive about parents who don’t want their kids to learn about sex even though the parents could choose to opt-out.
Back when I interviewed State Board of Education chairman Don McLeroy, he suggested that each school offer both abstinence-only and comprehensive curricula, with parents selecting the curriculum they want their children to receive. Many health researchers don’t like the opt-in approach because kids lose permission slips, and it’s generally a paperwork nightmare. I’m sure there would be downsides. But I’m going to go out on a limb here because it seems like this discussion is going to drag on indefinitely. Isn’t select-a-curriculum an approach worth trying? Parents shouldn’t be able to stick their heads in the sand. They should have to check off a box at the beginning of the school year: Do you want your kid to learn about sex with this curriculum or that one? Whatever parents choose, that’s fine. The de facto decision right now, however, gives Texas students information that is the least controversial only in theory, majority opinion be damned.