Sex Ed Landscape Shifting in States

While eighth-graders in North Clackamus, Ore., are learning the correct way to put on condoms, some of their counterparts in New Hanover, N.C., are using books that say, "There is not a lot of proof that condoms really work. Would you trust your life to one?"

State and district officials are dealing with a variation of that question. With the April release of a congressionally authorized study showing that kids who took abstinence-only classes were just as likely to have premarital sex as those who weren't in the classes , states are asking: Should we entrust our students to abstinence-only programs?

For a rising number of states, the answer is no. While a majority still requires that abstinence be stressed in sex education, lately there has been a movement toward comprehensive education that teaches about contraception along with abstinence. This shift has been bolstered by Democratic gains in statehouses and Congress.

The debate over sex education has been long-running and passionate. Those who favor abstinence-only classes say comprehensive programs send mixed messages to teenagers. But advocates of comprehensive courses say abstinence-only programs don't give teens the facts they need to make informed choices.

So far this year three states - Colorado, Iowa and Washington - have enacted laws requiring schools that teach sex education to ensure the information is "medically accurate" or "science-based" - code words for a comprehensive program.

In Minnesota, an education budget bill with a similar requirement is on the governor's desk. The Kansas Board of Education in April issued new guidelines that favor comprehensive sex education, and a bill pending in New York would fund such programs.

Those are significant victories for comprehensive sex-education advocates, considering that, before this year, only one state, Maine, had enacted a similar law since 2000. Currently, there are six states with a strong definition of "medical accuracy" written into their sex-education laws, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), which opposes abstinence-only programs. The states are California, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Missouri and Washington.

"Saner heads are prevailing," said Bill Smith, vice president of public policy at SIECUS. "I think these extreme programs have reached their extreme limit."

State action also could hasten the demise of an 11-year-old federal program that gives grants to states that match 75 percent of the federal money and use the funds solely to teach abstinence-only sex education.

As of last fall, California and Maine rejected the federal money because of the restrictions. Since then governors in another seven states - Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Wisconsin - have decided not to re-apply for the money, with several of them saying that new federal regulations had gotten too strict.

This month congressional Democratic leaders said they would not extend the program, which is up for reauthorization this year.

"Certainly at the federal level we are seeing abstinence under attack," said Peter Sprigg, the vice president for policy at the Family Research Council , a conservative family-values group. "Sometimes you will hear people say abstinence doesn't work, which is a comical thing to say because abstinence is the only thing that works 100 percent of the time if you practice it."

He added that while the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs is often questioned, that same standard isn't applied to comprehensive classes. "Is telling kids to wear condoms, telling them to use birth control, effective at getting them to use it?" he said.

The April study, which tracked 2,000 children, half of whom took abstinence-only classes, found that students in those classes were just as likely as their peers to have premarital sex. But the study also reported that teenagers in the abstinence classes weren't less likely to use condoms, something critics of abstinence-only programs have claimed would happen.

According to Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association , most people think comprehensive classes emphasize abstinence while including information about contraception. But in reality, Huber said, in such classes, "the greatest focus certainly isn't on abstinence, it's on promoting contraception."

Abstinence-only proponents scored their own legislative victory this year: Missouri, which currently requires that comprehensive information be taught, is expected to roll that back with a bill the General Assembly sent to Gov. Matt Blunt (R) that would let districts decide what kind of program to offer. The bill also would ban instructors from groups that provide or refer people to abortion services from teaching in public schools, meaning that sex educators from family planning organizations such as Planned Parenthood would be disqualified.

But that was the exception. Because of last year's elections, the sex-education landscape has changed significantly.

Colorado state Rep. Nancy Todd (D), a former teacher, said she waited three years to propose her bill because she was certain the previous Republican governor, Bill Owens, would have vetoed it, while new Gov. Bill Ritter (D) made pregnancy prevention part of his campaign platform.

In Washington state, comprehensive sex-education bills have failed in the past. But last election, after Democrats boosted their majority in both houses of the Legislature, state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen (D) - who had a baby after becoming pregnant as an unmarried 18-year-old - sponsored a successful bill.

"I feel very strongly about this issue personally," Haugen said. "I think that enough people have realized that we're living in a very different world with young people who are exposed to so much, and you really cannot keep your kids in a closet. … Ignorance is not bliss. Being ignorant is not acceptable."

There are small differences among the new laws. Iowa law mandates that comprehensive sex education be taught in all schools, while Colorado and Washington require only that if schools choose to offer sex education, it must be comprehensive.

Iowa and Washington's laws include a provision requiring the material be appropriate for all sexual orientations. Including California, that means three states now require sex education not to discriminate on that basis, according to SIECUS. In March, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland drew controversy when they offered a pilot sex-education curriculum that teaches about sexual orientation.

State laws give school districts a lot of leeway to decide how to teach sex-education classes. The North Clackamus, Ore., curriculum, for example, includes an overhead display of how to put a condom on an erect penis. This approach, a recent change from one that focused primarily on abstinence, came at the request of health teachers, said Matt Utterback, the district's director of secondary programs, who said teachers weren't sure whether they could answer certain questions under the old curriculum.

In New Hanover County Schools in North Carolina, this may be the last year that abstinence-only classes use "Sex Respect," the book with the sentence questioning the efficiency of condoms. A committee is currently reviewing six potential curriculums to ensure the information is up-to-date, said Kiersten Wildeboer, the district's lead health and physical education teacher.

New Hanover is one of just 12 districts out of 117 in the state that allows parents to choose between abstinence-only classes and comprehensive classes, which don't use "Sex Respect." To offer a choice, districts must have a public hearing and allow parents to review the curriculum for the comprehensive class.

According to Wildeboer, more than 80 percent of the district's students usually take the comprehensive course.