Sex Ed Victories for Texas, but Lots of Work Left - Reviewing the September SBOE Meeting
Looking back on the State Board of Education meeting from the 8th to the 11th, the first thing our coalition at Texas Is Ready must say is thank you.
Thank you to our supporters, especially those who testified, contacted their members, and signed our petition in support of sex education. Your voice was powerful and it truly made a difference.
Thank you to the Texas Education Agency staff, who diligently and effectively ensured the meeting’s success even through the complications of the pandemic.
And thank you to the members who worked to ensure the Health TEKS promote optimal health for Texas teens.
So, what happened at the SBOE meeting last week? Here’s a quick rundown for those of y’all not watching the livestream.
The members of the SBOE convened in person for the first time since the pandemic began, appropriately socially distanced and sometimes wearing masks. In a packed meeting that also included charter school applications and high school science standards, they heard virtual testimony, debated amendments and cast initial votes in the revision of Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) in Health Education for Texas schools.
On Tuesday, 111 people testified (virtually, via Zoom) over the course of 6 hours, with all but 6 of those individuals speaking on sex education. With testimony cut off at 9 pm, 119 people who registered were not able to speak
Of the 105 people who testified about sex education, 77% were in favor of abstinence-plus sex ed. This aligns with data from a poll on the subject taken in March.
Of the testimonies from teens, 100% were in favor of sex ed. This aligns with, well, everything we’ve ever heard young people say about sex ed in Texas. Just to make sure we’re clear -- not a single young person asked the board to *not* teach medically accurate, inclusive, comprehensive sex education.
On Wednesday through Friday, members then went through the proposed Health TEKS amendments line by line, taking votes on every single word that was changed. The draft standards had been written over the course of a year by six panels of expert stakeholders. With more than 200 amendments, this arduous process caused the Board to meet late into the night, and often lead to fierce debate over the issues at hand.
The final draft of the TEKS will be presented at the November meeting, where a final vote will be held. Pending passage, these TEKS will be shaped into curriculum, which will be reviewed and approved over the next year, then implemented in the 2022-2023 school year.
The bad news:
LGBTQ+ inclusive sex education is essential, yet the SBOE failed to pass any standards to specifically address the bullying LGBTQ+ youth experience, nor the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity. Even though the majority of public testimony was in favor of this, in line with polling data on the subject, the only members who supported the will of Texans were Democrats Allen, Cortez Davis, Perez, and Perez-Diaz, and Republican Robinson. Republican members did approve an amendment teaching prevention of “sexual bullying,” a term that, to be honest, we advocates had to google. It’s a phrase that appears to be in use in the United Kingdom but not so much in the USA, and is defined by a British anti-bullying group as "any bullying behaviour, whether physical or non-physical, that is based on a person's sexuality or gender. It is when sexuality or gender is used as a weapon by boys or girls towards other boys or girls – although it is more commonly directed at girls.”
The word “consent” was completely excised from the standards, with the exception of a standard on the legal age of consent. Members said that they didn't know what consent meant, and that teaching it violated Texas law (which it does not) (no really, it doesn’t). One member, Ken Mercer, even falsely claimed that pedophiles and sex traffickers use consent as a “gateway term” to prey on youth, despite the fact that sexual assault and domestive violence prevention groups, medical organizatons and even the Department of Homeland Security strongly support consent education as a major protective factor against sexual abuse. In our recent poll, 88% of Texas voters support teaching consent in sex ed classes.
Language including “marriages and committed relationships” was changed to reflect simply “marriages”despite the fact that Texas families take many shapes, including families with single parents, unmarried long term partners, families where children are raised by grandparents or other relatives, and families without children.
What’s the lesson in the losses?
Well, remember: the TEKS are a floor, not a ceiling. School districts will be able to include consent, LGBTQ+ students and family diversity in their curriculum if they choose, but unfortunately it will not be available to all Texas youth.
The good news:
Members adopted standards teaching basic information about birth control and prevention, screening and treatment of sexually transmitted infections at the 7th/8th grade and high school levels. As health TEKS are mandatory in middle school, this means that all Texas youth will have access to this critical information. This is a huge win for preventative healthcare in a state with extremely high STI rates and one of the nation’s highest teen birth rates.
Though SBOE members rejected draft standards teaching about consent, they did include standards in middle and high school on respecting boundaries of others and teaching that it’s wrong to coerce anyone into sexual activity. This is an improvement on current TEKS, which only cover refusal skills. With TEKS as a floor, schools still will have the option to include language about consent, which is an important concept for all people to understand.
Puberty education is critical to making a stressful world something that young people can understand when they hit the awkward phase. Now, with strong and medically accurate standards, Texas youth will be better prepared for navigating the physical and emotional changes that await them as they grow up. Youth will also receive timely information on menstruation in late elementary school.
Middle and high school TEKS now include basic information about Postpartum depression, including the message that support and treatment is available. Pregnancy-related mood disorders are common but often are hidden and stigmatized, so expanding awareness could literally be life-saving. Youth in Texas will also learn about the HPV vaccine, which is a successful prevention method for several common strains of the virus as well as some forms of cancer it causes. Education about the vaccine, available to youth of any gender, will save lives.
What’s the lesson in the wins?
Middle school youth in Texas will be getting sex ed. Across the board. For the first time in Texas history, all Texas youth will learn about contraception and STI prevention, menstruation, postpartum depression, and the HPV vaccine. Because only about a quarter of Texas teens take health class in high school, which is an elective in the state, having these standards in middle school is a major win.
Send a thank you to your SBOE Member for supporting these new TEKS
But, if you agree education around consent and inclusivity is still lacking, do consider encouraging them to amend the TEKS in November to include information on those
Read up on SHACs, or Student Health Advisory Committees. Engaging these district-level bodies is the next stage of this process - in the coming years districts will be selecting new curriculum to implement to meet these standards, and local advocacy is essential!
Don’t forget to sign the petition for better sex ed in Texas! It’s not the end of the battle yet, so add your name to the list if you agree with our Coalition’s goals.
And stay tuned to texasisready.org for more updates.
Anthony Betori is the Program Director at Healthy Futures of Texas. He is a MPH candidate at John Hopkins University and a Bloomberg Fellow. He has two great loves: public health and baking. Anthony resides in San Antonio, Texas.
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.
Healthy Futures of Texas, The Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and the North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens (Ntarupt) have teamed up to formTexas Is Ready, a movement advocating for improved sex education curriculum standards for Texas youth. In November 2020, the State Board of Education will update the basics of sexual health education in Texas, and leading up to that decision, representatives from each of the organizations making up Texas Is Ready will release regular blogs explaining the broad range of issues related to sexual health education in Texas.