Updated: Jul 30, 2021
Another legislative session has come and gone. And by the time the gavel banged the session to a close on May 31, 2021, Texas lawmakers had voted in major changes to sex education.
This is important, because school districts are preparing to implement the newly adopted Health Education curriculum standards -- the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS. With the new TEKS going into effect in the 2022-23 school year, the new laws will have a big impact on just about every school district across the state.
Some of these changes are beneficial and will result in more transparency around sex education -- a positive all around. However, other changes are concerning and are likely to harm students’ access to sexual health information.
Read on to find out what changed.
How it happened
Several bills were filed on sex education, including SB 442 and SB 1083 -- but all bills failed to meet key legislative deadlines and died. However, some bills were added on as amendments to a must-pass school finance bill, HB 1525, and passed into law.
Opt-in to sex education
Starting immediately, school districts must get written permission from parents or guardians actively opting children into sex education. Previously, parents could opt children out of sex education.
If you’ve ever missed a form crushed in the bottom of your kid’s backpack or buried in your email inbox, you can guess why this is concerning. While parents have always had the right to pull their child out of sex education classes, this new law could result in kids missing sex ed because their parents are disengaged, absent, or just overlooked a permission slip.
Texas joins just five other states that have opt-in procedures. Following some last minute negotiations, this opt-in provision will only be in place for three years, until 2024.
The opt-in language was part of SB 1083, which passed the Senate but did not get any hearings in the House, and then was amended on to HB 1525. This means the Texas House did not get a chance to weigh in on a significant policy change that impacts all Texas students.
School Health Advisory Councils
School Health Advisory Councils (SHACs) are volunteer groups of parents, community members, and school staff and are charged with ensuring that community values are reflected in health education. SHACs make recommendations on many areas of student health, but because one of their duties is making recommendations to the school board on sex education curriculum, they have become something of a lightening rod for groups opposed to sex education.
Several provisions from SB 442 were amended onto HB 1525. Effective immediately, notification of all SHAC meetings must be posted 72 hours in advance. Additionally, audio or video recording of the meeting and meeting minutes must be submitted to the school district and posted online if the district has a website.
Though SHACs are only advisory groups and don’t have decision making authority, it’s still good policy for meetings and meeting minutes to be posted online -- and many SHACs have already been doing this voluntarily. However, some SHAC leaders have expressed concerns that parent volunteers won’t feel comfortable having meetings recorded and posted online.
Fortunately, the worst proposed provisions -- which would have turned these volunteer committees into actual governmental entities and made personal computers and mobile devices subject to open records requests -- failed to make it into law.
The conference committee version of HB 1525 also removed language that would have required SHACs to allow public comment at meetings. However, in the process of making a recommendation on sex ed curriculum, the SHAC must hold two public meetings.
Many SHACs do voluntarily allow the public to attend meetings and provide input, but SHAC stakeholders were concerned that requiring meetings to be open to the public could result in volunteer committees being subject to hours of public comment. Instead, this public comment process will take place in front of the elected school board of trustees. Of course, SHACs can still adopt procedures to make meetings open to the public and allow reasonable public input, which may be beneficial for increasing community trust and support.
District adoption process
HB 1525 made several changes to the process by which school boards adopt sex education curriculum. School boards must adopt a formal policy establishing a process for the adoption of sex ed curriculum materials. This policy must include a resolution directing the school health advisory council (SHAC) to make recommendations regarding sex education. Following the SHAC recommendation, the school board must take action on the recommendation through a record vote at a public meeting.
These changes are likely to be generally beneficial and increase transparency around sex education adoption. Some districts may be nervous about the public meeting process, as sex education adoption can be controversial. Still, allowing public hearings gives community advocates a chance to express their opinions to their policy makers and engage meaningfully in the process.
Notification and curriculum availability
Parents and guardians will have more access to sex education curriculum materials under HB 1525 provisions. Previously, statute simply noted that districts must make sex ed curriculum materials available for reasonable public inspection.
Under HB 1525:
For sex education materials that are in the public domain, school districts must post materials online, if they have a website.
For curriculum materials that are copyrighted and not in the public domain, districts must allow parents to inspect the curriculum at their home campus or review the materials electronically in a secure manner that doesn’t allow them to be copied.
Additionally, any purchase agreements that school districts enter into with publishers must specify that parents of enrolled students can purchase a copy of curriculum materials at the same price paid by the district.
HB 1525 also created more intensive parent notification procedures for sex education. Parents will now receive a more detailed description of the content of the district's human sexuality instruction and a general schedule on which the instruction will be provided.
And a veto…
Both chambers approved SB 1109, a bill that would have required instruction on child abuse, family violence, and dating violence in middle and high school. However, this bill was vetoed by the governor because it did not include a provision for parental opt out.
It seems likely that the kids who need this education the most -- those who are growing up in abusive families -- would be the ones whose parents would be most likely to prohibit them from attending the lessons.
The new curriculum standards for health education cover these topics in both middle and high school. However, health education is only required at middle school and is elective in high school. It’s unfortunate that high school students may miss out on this critical information.
Jen Biundo is the Director of Policy and Data for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She loves a good data visualization, evidence-based public health priorities, and analyzing ballot returns by precinct. She’s the proud mother of two kids who are enrolled in Texas public schools, including a middle schooler who kind of wishes his mom had a normal job that didn’t involve sex education.