Sex-Education Flap Spills Into Virginia Political Contests

By Ellen Flax — September 27, 1989 4 min read

The controversy over Virginia’s new sex-education program has spilled over into the political arena.

Although a recent poll suggests that most Virginians support sex education, parent activists who oppose the family-life education program that goes into effect in the state’s schools this year pledged to make their views felt at the ballot box in November.

J. Marshall Coleman, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, has promised to rescind the sex-education program, which was mandated by the state board of education in 1987.

But Lt. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the Democratic nominee for governor, is a staunch supporter of family-life education. Mr. Wilder cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate last year to fund the $5.2-million program.

Impact Debated

Opponents and supporters of the program disagree about its potential effect on the gubernatorial race. But some observers think it could play a role in some of the 100 House of Delegates seats that are also on the ballot.

“I think it already is an issue,” said Mark Salster, the director of communications for the state gop “Parents are saying, ‘Why should I pay for something that I oppose vehemently?”’

“I think they want a good, solid, informational program for their children,” countered D.K. Starr, the press secretary for the state Democratic Party. “I don’t think people want to go back to the dark ages with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson determining what goes on.”

Although debate over Virginia’s sex-education program has assumed an unusually prominent political profile, it is similar in many ways to controversies over sex-education programs that have occurred in many districts across the nation.

A study released by the Alan Guttmacher Institute this year found that more than a quarter of the sex-education teachers surveyed felt their efforts were not supported by parents and other community members. (See Education Week, May 10, 1989.)

Sex education “is very much a political issue,” observed Maria Matthews, director of education for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

“When it gets close to the time for implementation, things tend to get hot and heavy,” she said.

The Virginia family-life education program requires districts to establish comprehensive K-10 or K-12 programs covering a wide range of topics.

‘Fair Amount of Dissent’

Programs must address: family living and community relationships; the value of postponing sex until marriage; human sexuality; human reproduction and contraception; the prevention and effects of sexually transmitted diseases; stress management and resistance to peer pressure; development of positive self-concept and respect for others, including people of other races, religions, and backgrounds; parenting skills; and child and substance abuse.

Districts may use a state-developed curriculum, or develop their own with the aid of “community-involvement teams.” Those panels, which in some cases have decided to include references to such subjects as homosexuality and masturbation in the curriculum, have come in for particularly sharp criticism from some parent activists.

Parents who object may remove their children from all or part of the program.

“There has been a fair amount of dissent,” said Lois Harrington, state coordinator for family-life education.

In the Mainstream?

The results of a statewide poll published in a Norfolk paper this summer suggest there is widespread support for the program. The survey showed that 79 percent of registered voters favored sex education.

Nevertheless, the program’s critics have vowed to bring the issue to the front burner in the fall campaign.

Parents for Better Education, an umbrella organization for groups opposed to the program, is collecting funds for campaign fliers and other publications.

Vern Jordahl, the group’s executive director, said parents object to the fle because it takes “away from parents their whole rights in the matter.”

Mr. Jordahl also said some parents believe that the fle is not a true abstinence-based program because it defines abstinence as being “everything up to the coital act.”

But others see a political advantage for those who support family-life education.

“It is an issue in which the Democratic position is in the mainstream,” said Jonathan Marks, vice president of Doak Shrum Associates, a Democratic political-consulting firm.

But “Democrats are afraid of the issue because they don’t believe the numbers,” he added.

Some observers also predict that Mr. Coleman will have difficulty making good on his promise to repeal the program even if he wins the election.

The terms of only two of the state board’s nine members expire next year, so Mr. Coleman would have only a limited ability to appoint those who agreed with his views on the issue.

Moreover, any measure to repeal the program would have to be cleared by the House education committee, which rejected several attempts to alter it last session.

A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1989 edition of Education Week as Sex-Education Flap Spills Into Virginia Political Contests