AUSTIN, Texas -- For more than 20 years, school districts here have emphasized abstinence above all else in sex education. But soon, members of the Texas Board of Education will consider whether to add new topics like “sexual risk reduction methods,” “healthy relationships,” and “anatomy” in grades as early as kindergarten.
The recommendations are part of Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s Essential Knowledge and Skills review for health education, which included input from health experts.
“It is about time that Texas come into the 21st century,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which has long pushed for changes to the curriculum.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank that focuses on sexual and reproductive rights, Texas is one of 37 states that require abstinence to be taught at school. About 27 states require that abstinence be stressed and 10 require that it be covered, according to the institute.
If approved, Morath’s report could bring the first change to health standards in the state since 1998.
“While parents and families are the primary educators regarding their children’s reproductive health behaviors, schools can also play an important role,” Morath wrote.
State law requires districts to “devote more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior,” a policy that Miller says is out of touch from today’s reality.
“If we teach abstinence-only sex education, we're ignoring the nearly 60 percent of students who say that they are sexually active before they graduate from high school. We're ignoring LGBTQ students because our abstinence-only sex education does not deal with sexual orientation or gender identity,” Miller said.
According to the review, “an understanding of a sense of self” can be introduced as a child enters kindergarten. “By the end of middle school, adolescents should understand sexual risk avoidance as the primary goal and learn sexual risk reduction methods that may be needed later in their lives,” Morath suggests.
“It seems the report is referring to an awareness of interactions with others, for example helping young children to learn about physical boundaries and respecting others' personal space. It also refers to a child's sense of self-confidence, which of course we want them to develop,” said Barbara Cargill, a Republican member of the state’s board of education.
But, not everyone agrees that the changes should be made.
“Abstinence is risk avoidance. We don’t educate our children to drink safely or do drugs safely,” said Alice Linahan, president of Women on the Wall, a group that protects parental rights.
Linahan believes parents should choose how sex education is taught.
“It’s a dangerous road to go. They lose their right as parents to decide when and how their children to be taught about sex education,” she said.
Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows Texas ranks fourth in the nation for teen birth rates, with more than 30,000 pregnancies. In 2016, Texas’ teen birth rate was nearly 31 out of 1,000 girls between the ages of 15 and 19, compared with the national rate of 20 out of 1,000, according to the agency.
The state board of education is planning a final vote on the new health standards in September 2020. If they pass, they would go into effect in the 2022 school year.