AUSTIN — For the first time since 1997, Texas education officials will consider a new statewide sexual education policy, and it could include teaching middle schoolers about birth control options beyond abstinence.
That proposed revision to the state’s health education standards is expected to draw crowds of people — albeit virtually — to Monday’s State Board of Education meeting, where members will take public comment and discuss the changes. Work groups of educators and experts have been working for months preparing recommendations for how the Republican-dominated board should revise its standards.
At what is likely to be a high-tension online hearing, advocates for comprehensive sexual education plan to laud the recommendation to teach abstinence-plus education earlier; opponents will say the proposals go too far beyond abstinence to be legal. The board is expected to make a final decision by November, setting the stage for how teachers and textbook publishers will approach the controversial subject for years to come.
Texas public schools are not required to teach sexual education. State law requires that schools teaching sex ed stress abstinence as the preferred choice for unmarried young people and spend more time on it than any other sexual behavior. Parents can opt their children out of any lesson they want.
According to a Texan Freedom Network study, just 17% of school districts, including some of the state’s most populous, taught abstinence-plus sex education in 2015-16. At the same time, federal data shows Texas consistently has one of the highest teen birth rates in the country, which studies show correlates with an emphasis on abstinence-only education.
This year, the board will consider requiring all seventh and eight grade health teachers to “analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods, including the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, keeping in mind the effectiveness of remaining abstinent until marriage.” Currently that is only a requirement in high school, where health education is an optional course. All Texas public schools must offer health education for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Advocates for comprehensive sexual education consider the proposed change a win and will rally for the board to approve it. “If we include basic information about topics like contraception and STI [sexually transmitted infection] prevention at the middle school level, we know students will have some exposure to that before high school,” said Jen Biundo, director of policy and data for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
The organization conducted a public opinion poll with the firm Baselice & Associates, which shows that 75% of poll respondents, including 68% of Republicans, support teaching sexual education that prioritizes abstinence but also provides information about contraception and STI prevention.
The state board last took up the health standards in 1997 and then adopted abstinence-only health textbooks in 2004. Abstinence-only advocates have successfully kept information on birth control and sexually transmitted disease prevention out of textbooks for decades.
As more school districts adopt more robust sexual education curricula, Texas Values, a conservative statewide advocacy group, has organized campaigns to fight back. Most recently, it led a group of detractors to speak out against Austin Independent School District’s proposed curriculum for grades three through eight, which included topics like gender identity, reproductive anatomy and body image, tailored for each grade. The school board unanimously approved the curriculum.
“Leftist LGBT advocacy groups are calling this a ‘once in-a-generation opportunity’ to attack Texas’ abstinence focused approach and teach highly sexualized LGBT propaganda starting in kindergarten,” read a Texas Values email blast sent to subscribers Friday.
Texas Values is also urging board members to exclude health standards teaching students about gender identity or sexual orientation. “Teaching children to question the biological reality of their gender or engage in dangerous sexual behavior at a young age is not the job of Texas schools,” said Mary Elizabeth Castle, a Texas Values policy adviser, in a statement to The Texas Tribune.
Advocacy groups like Texas Freedom Network and Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy are asking the board to include LGBTQ students in the standards. The existing standards and the proposed revisions make no explicit mention of those students, who are more likely to be discriminated against and bullied in their schools.