Kindergarten Sex Ed? Hardly

SUMMARY: A McCain ad says Education Week trashed Obama's education plans and that Obama wants "comprehensive" sex ed for kindergartners. The Truth-O-Meter says Wrong.

John McCain released an ad this week making the accusation that Barack Obama supports sex education for five-year-olds.

Here's what the ad says:

" Education Week says Obama 'hasn't made a significant mark on education,' that he's 'elusive' on accountability, a 'staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly.'

Obama's one accomplishment? Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners.

Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family."

Let's look first at the claim that Obama wants five-year-olds to learn about sex.

The origins of this claim go back to Obama's days as a state senator in the Illinois General Assembly.

In 2003, the Assembly considered a bill to expand sex education directives from grades 6 through 12 to grades K through 12. The legislation required the curriculum to be medically accurate and include information on the prevention of HIV and contraceptives. It also said abstinence must be taught and that students "shall be encouraged to base their actions on reasoning, self-discipline, sense of responsibility, self-control, and ethical considerations, such as respect for oneself and others."

Most pertinent to the kindergarten allegation, the legislation states that "course material and instruction shall be age and developmentally appropriate."

Carol Ronen, the now-retired state senator who sponsored the bill, said its main intent was to make sure that teenagers got information that was "medically accurate," a requirement that wasn't then part of the school code. A secondary effect was to expand age-appropriate sex education down to lower grades, to allow things like teaching school children to avoid sex predators, Ronen said.

"Barack never had anything to do with it," she said. "This is a lot of hoopla."

Obama voted for the legislation in committee on a party-line vote. He was not a sponsor nor a co-sponsor, and the legislation never made it to a full Senate vote. So calling it one of his accomplishments is wrong, since it never became law and it wasn't his bill anyway.

This isn't the first time Obama has faced the "sex ed for kindergartners" charge. When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, his opponent Alan Keyes used it. "Nobody's suggesting that kindergartners are going to be getting information about sex in the way that we think about it," Obama said at a campaign event in 2004. "If they ask a teacher 'where do babies come from,' that providing information that the fact is that it's not a stork is probably not an unhealthy thing. Although again, that's going to be determined on a case by case basis by local communities and local school boards."

Because the legislation doesn't say what the ad implies it said, and because it was not sponsored by Obama and didn't pass, calling it one of his "accomplishments" is absurd. We rated this claim Pants on Fire!

Now to the lesser accusation, that Education Week deplores Obama's record on education.

Education Week did write that Obama "hasn't made a significant mark on education," but the phrase is plucked out of its original context. It's is from a long article written during the Democratic primary that reviewed Obama's positions on education, particularly in comparison with the other Democratic candidates.

Here's the full quote:

"In his eight years in the state Senate and two years in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Obama hasn't made a significant mark on education policy. In Illinois, his biggest accomplishments were in reforming state ethics rules and capital punishment. He did promote early-childhood initiatives that advocates considered 'innovative and progressive,' said Betsy D. Mitchell, a lobbyist for the Illinois Association for the Education of Young Children. "His biggest accomplishment in the field was the creation of a state board to oversee the expansion of early-childhood education in the state, Ms. Mitchell said."

So Education Week did write the words "hasn't made a significant mark on education," but it was not as disparaging a remark as the ad makes it out to be.

The audio portion of the ad is misleading because Education Week did not say Obama was "elusive" or a "staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly." People who only hear the audio portion of the ad will not know that those two phrases are attributed to other publications. And, more significantly, those last two quotes come from opinion columns not news stories, which isn't made clear in the audio or video.

The "elusive" description is from a July 7, 2008, Washington Post editorial that says both candidates have fuzzy education proposals.

"Mr. McCain has not been forthcoming with any detailed plan; he is said to be preparing one for the fall. Mr. Obama, as the New York Times' David Brooks recently observed, has promised dozens of crowd-pleasing programs but has been elusive on such thorny issues as teacher tenure and school accountability," said the editorial.

The charge that Obama is a "staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly" comes from a Chicago Tribune opinion piece by Steve Chapman. That brief quote does accurately capture the substance of Chapman's piece, which criticizes Obama for not embracing school vouchers. We rated this statement Barely True .