While making a case for abstinence-only sex education, the right-leaning Texas Eagle Forum recently declared that sex isn't a mandated topic in Texas schools.
The group states in its March 11 "News & Notes" e-mail blast: "In Texas, schools do not even have to teach sex education."
Teaching the birds and bees, optional?
"In my understanding, it's a local level decision," said Pat Carlson of Fort Worth, the forum's Texas president.
She pointed us to the state's education code, which requires each school district's board of trustees to establish a local school health advisory council, with at least five members, including parents, clergy and law enforcement officials. The council makes recommendations on the health curriculum taught in the district's schools.
An excerpt from the law: "Any course materials and instruction relating to human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus or acquired immune deficiency syndrome shall be selected by the board of trustees with the advice of the local school health advisory council."
The law further states that "before each school year, a school district shall provide written notice to a parent of each student enrolled in the district of the board of trustees' decision regarding whether the district will provide human sexuality instruction to district students."
Whether the district will provide human sexuality instruction? That doesn't sound like a requirement.
However, schools do have to follow the state board of education's curriculum standards — Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills — according to a spokeswoman at the Texas Education Agency, which oversees primary and secondary public education. And that curriculum requires health teachers to teach sex education at appropriate grade levels.
The state's guidelines for health classes state that in grades 9-10, for example, "the student analyzes the relationship between unsafe behaviors and personal health and develops strategies to promote resiliency throughout the life span." The student is expected to explore "the relationship between the use of refusal skills and the avoidance of unsafe situations such as sexual abstinence... the importance and benefits of abstinence as it relate to emotional health and the prevention of pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases... discuss abstinence from sexual activity as the only method that is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy," and so forth.
On the one hand, it sounds like local school districts can opt out of teaching sex ed. On the other, it sounds like they're required to spell out the particulars.
There's another wrinkle. Last year, state lawmakers voted to no longer require high-school students to take a health course to graduate. But a TEA spokeswoman told us schools are still required to offer the course.
Confused? Apparently, so is the state education agency.
"It's clear as mud, " said David Anderson, the agency's legal counsel. "There is some ambiguity that a school district has to teach parts of the state curriculum about human sexuality."
Anderson explained the history of this issue this way: "When the curriculum was first written in 1995 — foundation curriculum and enrichment curriculum — and districts had to teach all of the foundation curriculum, like algebra, they did not have to teach every part of the enrichment curriculum. That's where health was."
Anderson noted that Attorney General Dan Morales issued an advisory opinion in 1998 stating that local school districts control the teaching of human sexuality in any enrichment curriculum (fine arts, foreign languages, technology, and health and physical education) — meaning school districts could choose not to teach sex ed.
Anderson said lawmakers later amended state law to require districts to teach everything spelled out in state curriculum standards. Despite that change, Anderson said, local districts still control what — if anything — is taught about human sexuality.
"It's at least an open question if a school board is required to teach some part of the health curriculum which some people might regard as sex education," Anderson said. "My guess is districts are making their (sex education) decisions locally and people are happy with that."
The only unquestioned mandate that school districts must meet, said Anderson, is the parenting and paternity awareness program taught as part of high-school health classes. He added, "But I'm not sure everyone would think that means sex ed."
We asked the attorney general's office to weigh in. Its spokesman, Jerry Strickland, declined, saying: "We don't provide legal opinions lightly; because of that, this would truly be an issue for TEA."
When we asked Anderson plainly if schools are required to teach sex education, he said: "It's not a yes or no answer."
How's this for clarity? If the responsible state agency cannot answer "yes," there is no requirement. We rate Carlson's statement as True.