(Note: HB 1525, a bill passed by the Legislature in May 2021, made updates to laws around sex education. Read our new blog post to see what happened.)
Texas state law has almost nothing to say about chemistry or physics, and just a little bit to say about algebra and computer science.
Curiously enough, Texas state law has a lot to say about sex education.
There are many layers of decision-making and control around sex education in Texas. The local school district adopts sex education curriculum on the recommendation of the School Health Advisory Council. The State Board of Education adopts minimum curriculum standards to guide classroom teaching. And over them all rules the State Legislature, which writes the laws in the Texas Education Code.
First off, how is sex education delivered in Texas? Some districts simply contract with an outside organization to come in and give a lecture. However, in other cases, sex education is delivered through a health education class.
Health education is required under state law in elementary and middle school but is elective in high school. Currently, the minimum curriculum standards for health education at the middle school level require very little instruction around reproductive health: some basic information on puberty, some information on sexually transmitted infections, and several standards around the importance of abstinence. The high school standards cover additional topics like birth control. However, health class is an elective rather than required course in high school, so many 9th to 12th-grade students don’t take health class - and one-quarter of districts don’t even offer it. Fortunately, the State Board of Education is in the process of revising these minimum curriculum standards (known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS for short).
For districts that do want to teach sex education, the TEKS are just a starting point. If the minimum curriculum standards are the floor, school districts can aim much higher and teach a wide range of additional content - so long as they comply with state law around sex education. Many districts do just that, offering a robust “abstinence-plus” curriculum that complies with state law while also offering medically accurate information on topics like contraception, prevention of STIs, inclusivity, and healthy relationships.
Most of the Texas laws around sex education are found in 28.004 of the Education Code. These laws were written back in 1995 as part of a total overhaul of the Education Code, and haven’t been changed since. Here’s what Texas law says about sex education:
Any sex education course materials or instruction must be selected by the school board with the input of the school health advisory council
Sex ed must “present abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior in relationship to all sexual activity for unmarried persons of school age” and “devote more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior”
Sex ed must emphasize that abstinence is the only 100% effective method at preventing pregnancy, STIs, and the “emotional trauma associated with adolescent sexual activity” and must direct teens to a standard of behavior of abstinence
If school districts teach about condoms and contraception, they must teach “human use reality rates” for effectiveness (side note: This is a term you’ll only see in Texas state statute - medical literature calls this the “typical use rate”)
School districts aren’t allowed to distribute condoms in connection with sex ed (though schools and school medical staff are not prohibited from distributing condoms outside of sex education instruction).
Students can be separated by gender for sex ed
School districts must give written notice to parents if sex ed will be offered.
If sex ed is offered, parents must be provided with a summary of the basic sex ed content, and informed that parents have the right to review curriculum material, and remove the student from any part of the sex ed class without penalty
Parents must also be notified about the opportunity to serve on the SHAC.
That’s what the laws say - but what do they omit? First off, sex education is required in 29 states, but Texas isn’t one of them. Secondly, Texas is not among the 22 states that required sex education to be medically accurate.
So, in summary:
The Texas Legislature adopts laws around sex ed and specifies which grades have to take health education.
The State Board of Education writes the minimum curriculum standards for Health Education.
Local school districts, with the help of school health advisory councils, select curriculum that aligns with the TEKS and state law.
Final word: Texas law has a lot to say about sex education, but it doesn't say we can only teach abstinence.
Our next two blogs will talk about school health advisory councils, and the work being done by the State Board of Education around revising the minimum curriculum standards. We've also previously done a blog on why abstinence-plus sex ed is best for 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 form Texas 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.