In Texas, nearly 80% of public schools teach children and teens abstinence or no sex education at all. Experts believe that this lack of evidence-based education is responsible for the state having one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. But now, that might be all about to change.
This week, members of the board of education heard hours of public testimony regarding potential changes to health curriculum drafted by teachers, parents, and health experts, who say that the Texas Board of Education should adjust its statewide curriculum to meet the health and reproductive needs of young people. The state's education commissioner, Mike Morath, was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in 2015, and suggested changes to the curriculum based on the high rates of risky teen sexual behavior.
Among the proposed changes to the current curriculum is an idea to provide instruction about condoms and other methods of pregnancy prevention. For decades, Texas public schools' sex education has prioritized abstinence — the idea no one should be having any kind of sex, at all, unless they are married. Only about 17% of the state's sex education classes utilized an "abstinence plus" curriculum that mentioned contraceptive methods like condoms to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy, says Dan Quinn, the research director and press secretary of the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), a non-partisan grassroots organization that supports religious freedom, individual liberties, and public education.
Leading up to this week's public comment period, socially conservative organizations in the state attempted to sway public opinion with homophobic attacks on the health curriculum proposals. According to The Texas Tribune, an email sent by the conservative Texas Values organization to its members said, "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."
While the proposed changes do address education to kindergarten-age children, none of these proposals include sexual and reproductive health. In fact, the youngest someone would learn about sexual and reproductive health as outlined in the proposed changes is fifth grade, which would educate students about puberty, consent, and how to refuse unwanted touching.
"The approach for all of this is you teach kids what's age appropriate for them ... at a level that students can understand," Quinn says. For instance, younger children might learn about consent or how to say "no." If a child doesn't want to be hugged, they can learn early on that they have a right to say that.
There are over 1,000 school districts across the state of Texas, most of which tell students through abstinence education that specifically, sex should only happen between a married heterosexual couple. But research shows that abstinence-only education does not prepare young people for sexual relationships, and in fact makes them more vulnerable to transmitting infections and unintended pregnancy because they have sex anyway, just without the proper education. "If abstinence-only worked, Texas would be the poster child for that," Quinn tells Mic — but it doesn't.
Texas teens report higher rates of engaging in sexual intercourse and higher rates of consistent sexual activity, and are more likely to engage in sexual activity without the use of condoms than their peers nationally. As a result, Texas has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and repeat teen pregnancy. In 2018, there were 25,393 teen births in the state, per a coalition of sexual health organizations, including 304 babies born to girls ages 10-14. These statistics represent a decline in the overall teen pregnancy and birth rates over the past decade — but while pregnancy has fallen during that time, rates of STI transmission have increased.
Despite the fact that Texas schools are not required to teach sex education, most Texans are in favor of some form of evidence-based sexual and reproductive education tailored to students' age. In Texas, Quinn says that "79% of registered voters, including 72% of Republicans agree that sex education should teach about condoms."
But even though both sides of the aisle, the information still gets muddled. Quinn says that "most parents don't even know what's being taught in their local schools, they just assume that [their kids are] getting good sex education." For decades up until this year, sex education curriculum had been a local issue in Texas. Parents and local conservative activists in Texas in favor of abstinence-only education in the past would petition specific school board officials for the curriculum they'd want to see. Quinn says TFN has found that "a lot of local administrations listen very closely to the loudest voices," which could account for the discrepancy between public opinion and what's actually offered in the classroom.
Socially conservative voices are also generally opposed to adding curriculum standards that teach about sexual orientation and gender identity. Talking about sexual orientation and gender identity is critical to ensuring that schools are a safe place for LGBTQ students, and Quinn says research shows most adults in Texas support reducing incidences of bullying against LGBTQ students.
"Much has changed in the world and in Texas in the more than two decades since the 1997 standards were adopted," the president of Texas Freedom Network, Kathy Miller, said in a statement. "Same-sex marriage is legal across America and as of last week, LGBTQ people are now protected from employment discrimination. It would be a tragedy if the new health standards continue to ignore the very existence of LGBTQ students in our classrooms today."
With the first public comment period now over, a second round of public comment will take place in September, when a revised draft of the curriculum is published. In November, the proposal will be put to a final vote by the state's board of education.