Daily Archives: January 17, 2007

A different kind of “choice”: Texas Legislature proposes and “opt in” approach to sex ed

I’m intrigued and a bit disturbed by the framing of this new policy proposal for a sex-ed “opt in” program in Texas schools. I first read about it in a post by Jessica Gold Haralson at Vivian’s Sex Carnival. You can see that post here.

Here’s the segment of the news story about the policy where I think the strange framing occurs:

“The principle behind the bill is to have parents more involved in the education of their children regarding sex education,” says Emily Snooks, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of North Texas.

House Bill 311 would require a school district to obtain written consent of a parent before the student could take sex education. Currently, all Texas students take sexual education unless a parent requests otherwise. Under the bill, all parents would have to make a choice.

Many parents support that idea.

“I think all parents should have a choice and a say in what their child is exposed to at that level,” Debbie Sherrington, President of the Franklin Middle School PTA in the Dallas Independent School District. (Click here to see the whole story.)

Is opting-out not just as much a choice as opting-in? Currently, parents need to make a choice to opt their kids out, if they don’t want the schools teaching them about sex (or, paradoxically, since the article points out that most Texas schools use “abstinence-only” curricula, then currently parents have to opt out if they don’t want the schools not teaching their kids about sex.) In what way does Ms. Sherrington, quotd above, not have a choice in what her kid is exposed to, and at what age?
Why would a parent feel more involved by virtue of having to sign her kid into a sex ed program than she would feel by virtue of having to sign her kid out of a sex ed program? This is not about choice. This is about the power to control what the default position is.

Planned Parenthood of North Texas is a supporter of the bill, and their support puzzles me. It seems to hinge on the fact that most sex-ed programs in Texas are of the abstinence-only type (according to the PPNT spokesperson quoted in the article). But it strikes me that the bill has a hidden agenda: not to empower parents, but to stigmatize those who want sex ed in the schools. This bill would not create a new degree of choice — parents would still need to choose whether their kid got sex ed in school or not, just as before — but it does change the default position from “sex ed” to “no sex ed”.

Whose interests are served by this? Certainly not those who would prefer sex ed in schools. It’s generally more difficult — at least marginally, though sometimes more seriously — to actively oppose an institution’s default position than to go along with it. At very least it requires taking an additional step, and it also requires willingness to stand out. This seems to me to be an effort at stigmatizing those who support comprehensive sex ed, not an effort at increasing choice for parents.

I sympathize, though, with PPNT‘s desire that parents all be informed about the kind of sex ed their kids will get (or not get) in their schools. If I had kids that went to a school where abstinence-only sex ed was the mandated curriculum, I would certainly want to know that so I could provide comprehensive, accurate information at home. But I don’t think the answer is to make “no sex ed” the default option. Rather, I would like to see a bill that mandates that parents be notified about the kind of sex ed program their school offers, and then to be given the choice to opt out of the program if they wish.

Note: For a thoughtful and comprehensive look at the battles over sex education in public schools, try sociologist Kristen Luker’s new book, When Sex Goes to School: Warring views on sex and sex education since the Sixties.

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