Baliles Shifts Sex-Ed. Funding Plan
Gov. Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia has endorsed a proposal requiring school systems to adopt sex-education plans, but has backed away from a recommendation that he fully fund the program only for districts that adopt a controversial curriculum approved by the state board of education.
Responding to a directive from the legislature, the board in November adopted a K-12 "family-life education" curriculum with detailed teaching objectives for a range of social and family issues, including human sexuality, childbearing, and parenting.
The board also offered more general guidelines for districts that prefer to adopt their own plans. The guidelines call for "age-appropriate instruction" on such topics as peer pressure and stress management, as well as on human reproduction, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Under the board's plan, the state would cover the full cost of implementing the program only for school systems that adhere to or exceed the learning goals in the specified curriculum. Systems that devise their own curricular plans based on the board's guidelines would receive state funds "on an equalized basis."
In his State of the Commonwealth address Jan. 13, however, the Governor called for full state funding, regardless of whether school systems adopt the board's curriculum or draft their own versions based on the guidelines.
According to Donald J. Finley, the Governor's secretary of education, Mr. Baliles "felt that this was the best approach," particularly for localities approaching sex education for the first time. Only about half of the state's 140 school divisions now offer sex-education curricula, according to education department officials.
Although the Governor's proposal would weaken the incentive to adopt the more structured, grade-specific curriculum, advocates say they will still count it as a victory if the proposal clears the legislature intact.
As long as districts "go with some type of family-life education," said Robert DeFord, the board's president, "it will be a big step forward."
Julie Lapore, sexuality-education coordinator for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the Virginia board's curriculum is among "the most comprehensive" in the country, but could be watered down if systems adopt their own. Only Delaware, Rhode Island, Nevada, Kansas, New Jersey, Maryland, and the District of Columbia now mandate sex education, and not all provide detailed guidelines on content and grades to be targeted.
The Virginia board realized in devising its curriculum that "it would probably go too far for some areas of the state," Mr. DeFord said.
"We're happy to see [localities] get the flexibility" to adopt their own plans, he said, because "any curriculum that doesn't have the support of its constituents wouldn't be successful."
Too Much Too Soon?
While legislators generally agree on the need for sex education, the board's curriculum has drawn fire from some who object to what they consider too explicit content in the early grades.
"For some people, their back hair goes up when they see in grades 2 or 3 that certain subject matter is going to be taught," said Delegate J. Paul Councill, Jr., a Democrat from Southampton, Va. He cited such topics as breast feeding and sexual organs, saying that "what might be acceptable in Norfolk is not necessarily acceptable in Southampton County."
Sandra Adair Vaughan and Adelard L. Brault, the two board members who opposed the curriculum, said they objected to the introduction of reproductive terms as early as the 3rd grade. They also cited studies showing that sex education does not curb--and may encourage--teen-age pregnancy.
Although the curriculum includes discussion of the merits of sexual abstinence, Delegate S. Vance Wilkins, a Republican from Amherst, Va., said providing information on contraception would "send a mixed message" to students.
State Senator Elliot S. Schewel, a Democrat from Lynchburg, argued, however, that because the curriculum allows for some shifting of subject matter within the primary and secondary grades, it provides enough flexibility to suit local needs.
The curriculum also provides guidelines for community and parental involvement and allows parents to ask that their children be excused from all or part of the program.
AIDS Was 'Catalyst'
Ms. Lapore said moves to mandate coursework in human sexuality have been driven, in part, by rising concern over the aids epidemic and by states' recognition that "you can't just teach about aids because you'd be teaching in a vacuum."
In Virginia, a legislative subcommittee studying the problem of teenage pregnancy first conceived of the family-life curriculum. But, according to Mr. DeFord, "aids was probably the catalyst ... that assured its adoption."
Ms. Lapore said concern over child abuse had also prompted school boards to address sex education.
"Child sexual abuse has made more people aware of the fact that maybe kids need to know more about their sexuality, what's good and what's bad," she said.
The Virginia curriculum, for example, includes a discussion of "how to respond appropriately to good touches and how to handle inappropriate approaches from relatives, neighbors, strangers, and others."