What students learn about sex in school varies greatly depending on where they live.
In some districts, sex education standards are left entirely to local decision makers. But many operate under a patchwork of state laws that either mandate teaching about certain subjects, like contraception, or put them off-limits entirely.
This year, one state is putting the issue on its ballot, asking voters to consider one of the most controversial topics in education alongside a governors race and one of the most divisive presidential contests in recent history. It’s an unusual move: While sex education standards are often set at the state level, they are rarely put to a popular vote.
Washington’s Referendum 90 asks voters to approve or reject a comprehensive sex education bill passed by the state’s legislature in the spring. The debate over the measure illustrates the complicated nature of determining how to teach about sex and sexuality in schools, with potential lessons for other states.
If voters give it the green light, the Washington bill would take effect, requiring all schools to provide “comprehensive sexual health education” by the 2022-23 school year. The bill defines compliant programs as those that provide “recurring instruction in human development and reproduction that is medically accurate, age-appropriate and inclusive of all students.” Districts could use a state-provided curriculum or select one of their own, as long as it aligns with state learning standards.
Supporters of the measure, including the Washington Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said it would ensure students have the information they need to make healthy choices and identify concerns about issues like sexual abuse and consent.
But a group of religious conservatives, who successfully petitioned to put the issue on the ballot, said the new law would infringe on local control. And some have expressed concerns that children may learn about some sex-related subjects too early, though the bill allows families to opt their children out of required courses.
National Landscape of Sex Education
Currently, Washington does not mandate that schools provide sex education classes, but it does require instruction on HIV/AIDS prevention.
Districts that do opt to provide additional sex education must comply with requirements set out in the state’s Healthy Youth Act of 2007, which are similar to what’s required in the current referendum: Lessons must be “medically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate, appropriate for students regardless of gender, race, disability status, or sexual orientation,” and include “information about abstinence and other methods of preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”
How does that fit into the national landscape?
“Across states, fewer than half of high schools (43%) and less than one-fifth of middle schools (18%) teach key CDC topics for sexual health education,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in a 2018 analysis.
The CDC outlines those topics in a curriculum analysis tool for schools.
Many schools that fall short of the CDC’s benchmarks may be complying with restrictive state laws, comprehensive sex education advocates say.
In 2019, 29 states and the District of Columbia mandated sex education in schools, according to an analysis of state laws by SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, an organization that advocates for comprehensive sexuality education. When sex education is provided, 35 states require schools to stress abstinence, that analysis found. Only nine states require teaching on consent, and eight states “explicitly require teachers to portray LGBTQ people negatively in health education instruction or prohibit teachers from mentioning LGBTQ people,” the analysis found.
Other states have wrestled with the issue in recent years. The state board of education in Texas, for example, gave preliminary approval this summer to a policy that would allow schools to teach middle school students about contraceptives, and not just abstinence, the Texas Tribune reported. In 2019, California’s state board passed a new framework that requires teaching about gender identity and other subjects related to sexuality, drawing protests, the Los Angeles Times reported.
If it takes effect, Washington’s measure would not require lessons on sexuality for students in 3rd grade and younger, the state’s department of education says. Rather, it would stress social-emotional learning concepts like identifying feelings and setting goals, the agency says in a summary on its website.
Students in older grades would have to learn about a range of subjects including sexual development, affirmative consent, forming healthy relationships, and preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Opting In vs. Opting Out
Washington’s law would allow parents and guardians to opt their children out of sex education lessons.
Giving families the option to opt out, rather than requiring them to opt in, is a simple policy change that can make a big difference, groups like SIECUS say. While polls show the public is broadly supportive of sex education in schools, requiring famlies to provide permission on the front end can be more cumbersome, SIECUS says, keeping some students out of lessons because of lost permission slips and other issues.
Five states require parents to opt their children into sex education or HIV education, while 36 states give families the chance to opt their children out, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advocates for access to sex education and reproductive health care.
The issue of when students learn about sex, and what exactly they learn, is emotional, personal, and politically charged.
In Washington, the debate has spilled over into the state superintendent’s race, the Seattle Times reports.
Washington Superintendent Chris Reykdal, a Democrat who is running for reelection, has spoken in support of comprehensive sex education.
“The rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) experienced by Washington youth are increasing at such a fast rate that it is now a health crisis,” Reykdal said in a state report on the issue. “Students are also reporting high rates of sexual violence and coercion. Research tells us that with a fact-based comprehensive sexual health education where students build skills related to communication and safety, STD, pregnancy, and sexual violence rates decrease.”
His challenger, Republican activist Maia Espinoza, has criticized his support of the standards. Her campaign material’s characterization of his support for the bill, and what sorts of lessons it would require, led to a defamation that went all the way to the state’s supreme court, the Seattle Times reports.
“Instead of collaborating to find agreeable solutions, the current Superintendent championed a statewide policy which ignored the objections of thousands,” she said on her website.
While the sex education referendum has generated strong reactions, it is just one of many issues the state’s education leadership must juggle as it deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, continued school closures, the massive challenge of getting students back on track after interrupted education, and directing millions of dollars in federal relief aid to support schools.