Is Parental Consent for Sex Education Classes An Unnecessary Hurdle?

By Evie Blad — February 19, 2015 2 min read
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State and district policies on sex education are a perenniel source of debates. Should schools teach about contraceptives? Should they promote abstinence? Should they mandate certain training for sex education teachers?

An issue that gets a little less attention is if and how schools should seek parental consent before teaching their children about sex.

In Kansas, for example, lawmakers are considering a bill that would forbid schools from teaching students about sex and sexuality without first getting written permission from a parent or guardian. The bill would also require schools to provide materials and course syllabi to parents if requested.

If the bill passes, Kansas would join just three other states that have similar “opt-in,” or “affirmative consent,” laws—Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, according to the Guttmacher Institute. A much more common approach, in place in 35 states, is to allow parents to opt their children out of sex education and to offer it to all students whose parents don’t object, an approach known as “passive consent,” the organization says.

So what difference does it make? A lot, advocates for comprehsive sex education say.

At a spirited Kansas House committee meeting this week that included multiple references to the popular novel 50 Shades of Grey, supporters of the “opt-in” mandate said it would help preserve parental rights, a story in the Topeka Capital-Journal says.

“This bill is about putting parents back in control of the information their children receive on sexual education,” said Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Public Health Committee, according to the paper. “Parents need to be in control of their children and the sexual education material they are receiving.”

Currently, Kansas districts can choose whether to require parents to opt their students in to sex education or to merely offer them the option to remove their students from such classes.

Supporters of more common passive-consent policies say offering parents a chance to opt out allows them to retain control over their children’s education while avoiding costly and time-consuming administrative processes for schools.

Opt-in policies—along with calls to end mixed-gender sex-education classes and pushes for optional abstinence-only classes—are a tactic designed to eliminate or limit sex education from public schools, the Guttmacher Institute says:

The so-called 'opt-out' policy currently used in the vast majority of school districts requires that parents take the initiative to inform the school if they do not want their child to participate in sexuality education. In districts that keep records, according to SIECUS data, fewer than 5 percent of parents exercise their option to remove their children from sex-education courses.
In contrast, the alternative consent policy proposed by supporters of abstinence-only education would create an 'opt-in' policy requiring the school to obtain written permission from each student's parents before that student could take sex education. A projection of the impact of such a change on schools in Fairfax County, Virginia, concluded that processing the nearly 134,000 forms generated by the 98 percent of parents in the school system who allow their children to receive sexuality education would require two weeks of work by 50 school employees. In addition to the increased burden on school staff and finances posed by the "opt-in" consent policy, there is the additional risk that some children would be excluded from sexuality education not because their parents did not want them to participate, but because the necessary consent form either never reached the parent or was never returned to the school."

A similar bill failed to make it to Kansas’ House floor for a vote last year.

What do you think? How should schools handle this issue?

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.