‘Once in a Generation’ Chance for Texas to Move Beyond Abstinence-Only Sex Education (Updated)

The standards could have a strong influence on textbook content across the United States.

[High school freshmen and sophomores using iPads for their schoolwork]
Advocates hope the Texas State Board of Education will not only pass medically accurate sex ed for the state’s public school students but also incorporate sexual orientation, gender identity, and abortion care in the curriculum. Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Getty Images

UPDATE, November 23, 2020: By a party line vote, the Texas State Board of Education adopted new sex education standards that include teaching about birth control in addition to abstinence, but rejected standards that that would have acknowledged LGBTQ students and taught students positive consent. The new standards will take effect in 2022.

For the first time in more than two decades, the controversial Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) is slated to revise its sexual education standards in the fall, a historic opportunity to rewrite a problematic abstinence-only curriculum in a state that continually holds one of the highest teen birth rates and now rising STI rates in the nation.

Advocates hope the Republican-dominated board—which historically overrode facts with right-wing ideology—will not only pass medically accurate sex ed for the state’s public school students but also incorporate sexual orientation, gender identity, and abortion care in the curriculum.

The implications of the SBOE’s faulty curriculum decisions reach far beyond the state’s 5.4 million public school students: Because of the size of the Texas market, the standards could have a strong influence on textbook content in other states across the country.

“This is really the first time in a generation Texas can correct the really bad information—or the lack of information—in its health textbooks,” Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a progressive nonprofit that monitors the board of education, told Rewire.News. “It’s an important chance for the SBOE to recognize the failures of abstinence-only policies over the past decades and take a big step forward.”

The “political” circus of drafting sex ed standards in Texas

The 15-member board’s history with creating health curricula is mired in conservative censorship and religious-right dogma.

Texas schools must offer health education from kindergarten through eighth grade, but the state does not require health class for high school. Today, more than 80 percent of Texas school districts either teach abstinence-only or nothing at all when it comes to sex education.

In 1994, a “political circus” erupted, Quinn said, when social conservatives demanded publishers make hundreds of changes to proposed new health textbooks, including removing information on condoms and other methods of birth control; STI and HIV prevention; an AIDS helpline; and even illustrations of testicular and breast self-exams for cancer, finding them too suggestive.

By 1997 the board decided to completely overhaul the standards, overwhelmingly emphasizing abstinence with only a single standard at the high school level calling for students to analyze the “effectiveness and ineffectiveness” of contraception. In 2004, publishers—wary of pushback from right-wing board members—submitted abstinence-only textbooks, largely omitting contraception as well as information on STDs and sexual orientation.

A 1995 Texas law, signed by former Gov. George W. Bush—which forces districts that choose to offer sexual education as part of health class to emphasize abstinence until marriage—has only emboldened the SBOE throughout the years. Texas is among 29 states in which abstinence must be stressed, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

After 22 years, the board’s current draft revisions—while still stressing abstinence—now include information about “sexual intercourse” as early as sixth grade; ways to “analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness” of contraception, including “prevention of STDs” in seventh and eighth grades; and “contraceptive methods, how they work, side effects, and the risks and failure rates” for high school students. In a further sign of progress, consent is also included, as well as standards on sexual abuse and setting boundaries.

The board held a 16-hour marathon virtual hearing on the health standards in late June, with the majority of the nearly 300 speakers testifying in favor of moving beyond abstinence-only education. The SBOE is expected to hold another public hearing on the updated draft—which can still undergo changes—and take an initial vote in September with a final vote in November. The standards will guide textbook publishers as they create books that schools will likely use for the next decade, at least. Under the current schedule, the state could adopt those books as early as fall 2021.

Can’t afford to get this wrong

The need to provide fact-based, medically accurate sex education is even more urgent when considering Texas’ track record on teen contraception use and pregnancy: More than 60 percent of high school seniors say they have had sex, and the majority report that they didn’t use a condom the last time they did so, according to TFN.

Texas has the ninth highest teen birth rate—nearly 45 percent higher than the national average—and the highest rate of repeat teen births in the United States. A baby is born to a teen parent in Texas every 21 minutes, according to the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. While researchers are hesitant to draw a direct causation, studies have shown a positive correlation between states that prioritize abstinence education and teenage pregnancy and birth rates. Additionally, the rates of sexually transmitted infections, including chlamydia and gonorrhea, are rising as much as 25 percent among Texas youth.

Despite some “loud voices on the fringe,” sexual education should not be a partisan issue, Jennifer Biundo, policy director at the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, told Rewire.News. She points to a recent poll, commissioned by her organization and conducted by a noted Republican polling firm, Baselice and Associates, which found 79 percent of Texas adult respondents, including 72 percent of Republicans, support teaching contraception, and similar percentages support teaching consent and inclusivity for LGBTQ students.

“We see that the large majority of parents support evidence-based, common-sense education for their kids that is medically accurate,” Biundo said. “The board has a tremendous opportunity here to ensure youth have access to information that is critically important for them to be in charge of their futures and build healthy relationships.”

While many are cautiously optimistic about the updated draft revisions, abortion as part of the full range of reproductive health care still is not addressed, which advocates say will only increase stigma and misinformation in a state deeply hostile to abortion rights. Due to a maze of onerous anti-choice laws, Texas is among the most difficult states to access abortion care in.

“We are deeply concerned that these standards don’t even acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ students in the classroom.”
-Jules Mandel, Texas Freedom Network

As a queer woman of color, Jessica Pires-Jancose said the lack of accurate rhetoric around sex and abortion negatively impacted her early sexual experiences and caused confusion, as she resorted to Google searches and her peers for information.

“When we omit abortion as a way to deal with an unintended pregnancy from our curriculum and conversations, we send the message that abortion and those who access this care are stigmatized, resulting in an environment where young people may not feel comfortable with opening up to the adults in their lives who should support and respect their decisions,” Pires-Jancose, a community organizer with NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, told the board in late June.

In addition to abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity are also omitted from the overhaul, troubling the LGBTQ community who understand that teaching about sexual orientation is vital to creating a safe environment for queer youth.

“We are deeply concerned that these standards don’t even acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ students in the classroom,” Jules Mandel, TFN’s outreach and advocacy coordinator, told the board. “Teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity and expression promotes respect for others, helps all students understand themselves and the people around them, and helps to reduce bullying, discrimination, and harassment.”

Christopher Hamilton, CEO of Texas Health Action, a sexual health-care provider that operates Kind Clinics, echoed the concern to the board, recalling bigoted misinformation he received as a child in Texas. “As a fifth-grader in Houston, I was taught gay men got AIDS when they had sex, and that was it. Even at that age, we knew that wasn’t right,” Hamilton said.

LGBTQ and pro-choice advocates face opposition from right-wing board members and influential conservative groups like Texas Values, which are aggressively campaigning against the revised curriculum with homophobic and anti-choice attacks, calling the proposals “radical indoctrination” and “highly sexualized propaganda.”

There are also vocal abstinence-only champions to contend with, like It Takes a Family’s Monica Cline, a volunteer Planned Parenthood sex health educator who now ardently advocates for abstinence-only education. Cline told the board comprehensive sex education sets up the “expectation” that kids need to be sexually active and urged them to support “sexual risk avoidance”—a recent rebrand of abstinence-only programs that co-opts public health and rights-based language.

“I really believe that parents should be educated about sex and have these conversations with their children at home […] and not forced on them by a mandate in their public schools,” Cline said.

The logic of placing the onus on parents baffles District 3 State Board of Education member Marisa Pérez-Díaz, who points out that there are more than 100,000 Texas public school students who are homeless, and many are in foster care who don’t have families to provide them sexual education. Pérez-Díaz told Rewire.News that lack of information has led to a growing public health crisis in her district, which encompasses San Antonio and the southern Rio Grande Valley, as pregnant young girls cross the U.S.-Mexico border to undergo unsafe abortion procedures and come back ill.

“In Latino culture we’re very strict Catholic—no one talks about sex before marriage at home,” she said. “These young ladies aren’t being educated about their bodies and don’t have adults they can go to, and so they are making very drastic and dangerous decisions out of desperation.”

As one of five Democrats on the board, Pérez-Díaz is heartened to see some progress on sex ed but says the inclusion of sexual orientation and abortion will face an uphill battle.

“We’ve made small gains, but I feel like the old ideology is still alive and well in this conversation,” Pérez-Díaz said. “I am fearful we’re going to still see exclusionary-type language in the standards, and it’s really unfortunate.”

As a longtime watchdog of the SBOE’s culture wars, TFN’s Quinn acknowledged the progress and remains relatively optimistic, saying the board—whose political makeup has become less zealously right-wing over the years—has recently “steered away some of the worst controversies that made Texas a laughingstock to the country a decade ago.” However, he cautiously recalls that just a couple of years ago the board insisted in its social studies curriculum that Moses was somehow a major influence on the Constitution and founding documents.

“There’s been some improvement,” Quinn said. “But they haven’t moved completely away from the political circus.”

Correction: This article was updated with Monica Cline’s correct title.