Signs at the Texas Freedom Network's Stand Up for Science rally
Patrick Michels

The Long, Winding Road that Led to the SBOE’s Decision for Texas Schools to Teach Abstinence-Plus Sex Education

For the first time in 23 years, the State Board of Education has updated the state’s health and sex education standards for middle schoolers. The board voted to expand what students learn about safe sex, but LGBTQ2+ issues and consent are still nowhere to be found.

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Ann Thanh Phan says she’s tired of educating herself. She’s tired of having to dig up crucial information she didn’t know she needed. And she’s tired of her friends facing confusing, and sometimes traumatic, sexual experiences because of a lack of education. In middle school, she endured sexual harassment and she says her peers did too, often without the language or understanding to identify it as such. At the age of 17, Sugar Land student, Phan has become a peer educator because of all the information she—and her friends—didn’t learn. “I will graduate high school this year never having had any sexual education in school,” she said in September, testifying virtually before the State Board of Education (SBOE), the agency responsible for setting statewide education guidelines and adopting textbooks for public schools.

For the last year, Phan has been testifying before the SBOE for broader health and sex education curriculum along with other students and advocates. “This is your chance to make things right,” she said, directly addressing the board members.

Ann Thanh Phan testifies before the State Board of Education on September 8.
Ann Thanh Phan testifies before the State Board of Education on September 8.  State Board of Education

The SBOE, which dictates education standards for the state, has set a very low bar for health and sex ed. As Phan knows firsthand, the minimal health curriculum standards set by the state don’t actually reach all Texas children. Texas is a parental opt-out state, meaning any parent can pull their child from lessons on sex education, and the curriculum is often deprioritized within districts. Right now, 25 percent of school districts teach no sex education at all, 58 percent teach abstinence-only, and about 17 percent teach “abstinence-plus” education, which includes information about contraception and STI prevention. However, districts in Austin and Fort Worth, for example, have faced local battles after trying to implement more comprehensive sex education.

In November, the SBOE voted to revise its health and sex education requirements for the first time in more than 20 years. While most subjects are revised every decade, the health standards are slated less often because of the course’s status as an elective. The main result of the revisions is that students in middle school will learn “abstinence-plus” education rather than “abstinence-only” education, meaning students can learn more about sexually transmitted infections and, for the first time, learn about contraception. This reflects a major change for Texas, where the majority of school districts teach no medically accurate information on condoms or safe sex.

Despite the state’s emphatic focus on abstinence, Centers for Disease Control studies show that Texan teens have self-reported higher rates of sexual activity and of not using a condom than the national average. Texas also consistently ranks among the states with the highest teen birth rates and higher rates of HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea infections. In 2013, a statewide survey showed that 84 percent of Texans already supported abstinence-plus education, but policy is just starting to reflect that shift now.

Perhaps more indicative of the SBOE’s stance on sex ed, though, is what they left out. “We’re really concerned that the board members voted down every single proposed amendment that was LGBTQ-inclusive,” said Jules Mandel, a spokesperson from the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network (TFN). A 2017 study found that 60 percent of LGBTQ2+ students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, and 45 percent because of their gender expression. Mandel cites one amendment that would have simply directed teachers to explain the importance of treating all people, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, with dignity and respect, but the majority of the SBOE board opted to strike it. Originally, the proposed revisions included standards to teach kids about consent, but that was rejected, too.

Austin advocate Susanne Kerns, founder of Informed Parents of Austin, says supporters who waited in long lines to speak at the meetings were “pleading and begging” for comprehensive, inclusive sex education. Phan used the same language, saying LGBTQ2+ students were “begging [the board] to recognize them and recognize their experiences.” Kerns says in her four years of advocacy, she’s never seen a student testify against sex ed.

Advocates at TFN see the politicization of the board as a mechanism of control. “Conservatives have understood for a long, long time,” says Mandel, “that if you control the education of young people, you control the ideology of a state.”

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Textbook revisions generally come after the SBOE votes on standards, then, textbook writers draft materials based on those guidelines and present them to the board. The last time those guidelines were revised was in 1994, the last year Democrats won a statewide election in Texas. The Christian right, which recognized the SBOE as a key battleground of Texas’ culture wars between the religious right and progressive left, had begun its rise within the Republican Party in the late 1980s and built a strong faction on the board by the early 1990s.

When textbook publishers submitted materials for adoption in 1994, they fielded vocal objections from staunch abstinence-only critics on and off the board. Controversy over chapters that included information on condoms and other types of contraception was just the tip of the iceberg: Sections on STI and HIV prevention were contested. The number for an AIDS helpline was removed. And some critics claimed that illustrations of genitalia, including those of self-examinations for breast and testicular cancer, were too graphic for high school students.

In the 1990s, there were so many demands for changes at the textbook adoption stage that SBOE members went back to the drawing board in 1997 and passed the restrictive standards in place today. The single standard mentioning methods of birth control, other than abstinence, called for students to “analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods.” When textbook publishers proposed new books seven years later in 2004, they were wary of pushing the boundaries, and submitted almost exclusively abstinence-only content.

“Conservatives have understood for a long, long time that if you control the education of young people, you control the ideology of a state.”

Health and sex ed have been lightning rod issues for the State Board of Education, an office that has something of a bad reputation for legitimizing fringe fundamentalist Christian theories and mandating curriculum that has no basis in history or scientific fact. These antics have drawn unflattering attention to Texas from incredulous observers for years. The last big swell of media coverage on the board was in 2010 when former chairman Don McLeroy made news for undermining evolution in new biology textbooks, and doubling down on his position that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together.

In 2011, after widely ridiculed revisions of social studies followed—including mandates to teach Moses as a highly influential figure on the Founding Fathers—Don McLeroy was ousted by moderate Republican Thomas Ratliff, who served for six years. Ratliff brought on a “slow turn back to sanity,” according to Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) lobbyist Mark Wiggins. During Ratliff’s tenure, the center-right wing of the state’s Republican Party, science-believers who have at times been decried from the right as RINOs (Republican In Name Only), led the way.

While the ultra-conservative bloc from 2010 that Don McLeroy represented isn’t quite as dominant on the board today—chair Keven Ellis is closer to center-right—the ideological divide is still stark, and the religious right is still highly vocal. In 2019, the SBOE’s appointed seven content experts to give recommendations on sex education. That sparked controversy early on, as they included figures such as a divisive OB-GYN who refuses to prescribe birth control and a director of a religious crisis pregnancy center, which counsels patients against having abortions. “There are no actual criteria for what an expert looks like,” says the Texas Freedom Network’s Jules Mandel.“Four out of those seven are quite unqualified… and they have an agenda that’s really not based in fact.”

Liberals and conservatives have mixed feelings about the revisions. Texas Freedom Network, which coordinated volunteers like Phan to share public testimony during meetings of the SBOE, says they see the move towards abstinence-plus, medically accurate education as a major improvement, but the organization has been vocal in opposition to the overall exclusion of LGBTQ2+ students, and, now, a lack of consent education. “We have been in this fight since we were founded,” Mandel says. “It’s why we were founded.”

Concerned Parents of Texas, one of a few Christian groups active in pushing the board to keep sex education out of the classroom, says they are happy abstinence is still the focus, but are concerned that only nine members of the board voted against the LGBTQ2+-focused amendments, against the board’s five Democrats and one Republican, a ratio they see as too close. “We are on the side of the healthiest option for children,” says Caryl Ayala, founder of Concerned Parents of Texas, “which means you don’t get involved in sex ed so you won’t get sick, diseased, or pregnant.”

After a long process of drafting, revising, and hearing testimony over the last year, the current SBOE voted to approve the new standards, which will roll out in 2022, but the textbook edits come next. Mandel says this will be their next battle. “We will have to advocate to make sure that all of the great changes that we fought for are accurately represented in the textbooks.” Especially, Mandel adds, because textbooks written in Texas, one of the nation’s largest markets, are often sold in other states.

As Phan sees it, there’s no way to keep teenagers from learning about sex, either in person or on the internet. “It is the role of Texas public schools to prepare Texas students to go into young adulthood and live happy, healthy lives,” she says.

“What is it going to mean in 20 years?” says Phan. “In another generation from now, how backwards will we look if we cannot even include these ideas in 2020? By 2040, we will have the same issue that we’re having right now, where the standards that we’re looking at from the ’90s seem so archaic and so conservative, and you look at them, and ask, how did this ever happen?”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Thomas Ratliff’s position on the SBOE. The story originally stated Ratliff had served as chair of the board. The Observer regrets the error.

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