Let's Talk About Sex Ed: Lawmakers Propose Two Sexual Health Bills For Session

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As the legislative session gets underway this week, two lawmakers—one Republican and one Democrat—have each filed bills related to sex education taught in Texas public schools. One bill limits the materials school districts can offer in their programs, while the other expands the scope of the curriculum. Can you guess which legislator filed which?

Let's start with the sensible one. House Democrat Mary Gonzalez's bill would require that school districts offer "age-appropriate" and "medically accurate" materials in their sexual health and education programs. The bill defines "medically accurate" as material "supported by peer-reviewed research conducted in compliance with accepted scientific methods and recognized as accurate by leading professional organizations and agencies with relevant experience, such as the American Medical Association." While that might sound obvious, such a specification is missing in the state's education code, and Gonzalez's bill would codify that language in current law.

In the meat of the bill, Gonzalez keeps the focus largely on abstinence—the only method that the state actually requires be taught in public schools—but also specifies that school districts highlight the impact and effects of FDA-approved birth control methods in preventing unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. As it stands now, teaching contraception along with abstinence is strictly optional. 

Gonzalez's House Bill 78 also proposes giving school districts the freedom to distribute condoms should they choose to as part of their instruction, something that they're can't do under current law. The bill would also require the State Board of Education to adopt a rule that school districts weave health relationship and communication skills into their instructional materials (who-da thunk it?!). A similar bill filed by State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, prohibits bias based on a student's race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnic/cultural background. 

On the flip side, not surprisingly, State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano, wants to prohibit sexual health and education instructional materials created by "an entity or individual that performs abortions or an
affiliate of an entity or individual that performs abortions." Read: Planned Parenthood. Leach has filed something similar in the past, and if that affiliate language sounds familiar to you, it's essentially same rule enacted in 2011 that wrote Planned Parenthood out of the now-dissolved Medicaid Women's Health Program, which the state lost out on because it banned a provider. 

Anna Chatillon, policy coordinator for the Healthy Futures of Texas Alliance that works to reduce unplanned pregnancy and teen pregnancy, says limiting the kinds of materials that can be taught in public schools does nothing to further the downward trend of teen pregnancy rates. Over the last several years, Texas' overall teen pregnancy rate has declined to 43.9 per 1,000 females ages 15 to 19, though still sits higher than the national rate of 29.4 in 2012. 

"We need to increase what we’re doing really well in Texas, which is getting programming that works into schools when and where parents want it," she said. Currently, each school district's school health advisory council made up of parents and community members decides on the school's sex ed materials. In Texas, public school parents have the option to remove their student from a particular lesson. 

Dan Quinn with the watchdog group Texas Freedom Network says bills like Gonzalez's have, unfortunately, gotten nowhere in the past. Leach's bill, he said, creates yet another "bureaucratic, burdensome" hurdle for school districts. Not to mention the cheap points scored by conservative lawmakers who take aim at Planned Parenthood. 

"I think legislators would do Texas families a big favor if they stopped trying to drag our schools and health care into the sex ed and abortion wars," he said. 

The legislative session kicks off in Austin tomorrow.

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