It’s hard to imagine high school without health class, but starting this fall, that’s exactly what will be happening in school districts across Texas. Yes, it will now be possible to attend high school without ever squirming through a lecture on the birds and the bees, or gleaning any information whatsoever about STDs, pre-natal care, nutrition, diabetes, obesity, and the dangers of tobacco, alcohol, and drug abuse. Although individual school districts may choose to offer health education, the Texas Education Agency has eliminated the state requirement that they must do so. Only two other states in the country—Colorado and Oklahoma—lack a health education requirement.

Was this just a veiled way, I wondered, of doing away with sex education altogether? Abstinence education has been edging out comprehensive sex education for a while now, and what sex ed there still is has become laughably watered-down. As TEXAS MONTHLY senior editor Katy Vine wrote last year in her story on abstinence education (“Faith, Hope, and Chastity,” May 2008): “No law mandates that methods of contraception be included in sex ed classes, and nowhere in the [Texas Education Code] is condom instruction encouraged. Only one of the four state-approved high school student health textbooks uses the word ‘condom,’ and that book reaches only a small percentage of the Texas market. Because the language of the code does not insist on condom instruction, schools are free to leave it out.”

When I asked the Texas Freedom Network—a non-profit watchdog group that monitors the far-right’s influence on public education in Texas—if the TEA had deliberately dropped the health class requirement so that sex ed would be less likely to be taught in public schools, TFN’s deputy director Ryan Valentine explained that that was not, in fact, the case. “We don’t think the decision to eliminate the health requirement has anything to do with sex ed,” said Valentine. “This is not a secret plot to eliminate sex ed altogether from Texas classrooms.” In essence, he explained, the TEA’s hands were tied; the education reform bill, HB 3, that passed this spring, mandates that high school students must take six elective courses, as opposed to the current standard of three-and-a-half, and the agency needed to free up time in students’ schedules for these new electives.

But the decision to do away with health class, in particular—and one semester of physical education, as well—is a measure, perhaps, of where the state’s priorities lie. Teaching teenagers how to prevent disease and maintain healthy lifestyles is not at the top of the list. “The TEA had no good choices,” Valentine told me. “But the decision to do away with health education makes a bad problem worse, since Texas has been among the nation’s leaders in teen pregnancy and many other health issues for adolescents.”

How poorly does Texas rank when it comes to public health? A quick overview:

* Teen pregnancy rate: Texas has the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation.
* STDs: Texas has the fourth-highest rate of AIDS cases and the tenth-highest rate of syphilis cases.
* Physical inactivity: Texas has the eighth-highest rate of physical inactivity.
* Diabetes: Texas has the tenth-highest rate of diabetes.   
* Obesity: Texas has the fourteenth-highest rate of obesity.

Will learning how to put a condom on a banana solve all these problems? Of course not. But making students more aware of how they can stay healthy (and discussing issues that are of particular concern to teenagers, like eating disorders, date rape, and suicide prevention) certainly couldn’t hurt.

The TEA’s decision came too late for most school districts to change their schedules for the 2009-2010 academic year, so many schools will still offer health class this fall. The moment of truth will come next spring, when districts must plan their course schedules for the following year.