The House Education Committees in both Louisiana and Pennsylvania voted recently in favor of bills that would allow school districts to provide more comprehensive sex education to students. If passed, the legislation in both states would require human sexuality instruction to be medically accurate, age-appropriate, and to address the benefits of abstinence as well as the effectiveness of contraceptive methods in preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Both bills also provide parents the right to remove their child from instruction.
Harrisburg, PA—The Pennsylvania House Education Committee passed House Bill 1163, otherwise known as the Healthy Youth Act, on April 27, 2010, by a vote of 14–11. Sponsored by Representative Chelsa Wagner (D-Allegheny), the bill would establish minimum standards for sex education curricula administered in public schools. The Healthy Youth Act would require school districts to provide sex education that teaches the “benefits of and reasons for not engaging in sexual intercourse”; “the side effects, health benefits, effectiveness, safety and proper use of all FDA-approved contraceptive methods” for preventing unintended pregnancy; “how STIs [sexually transmitted infections] are and are not transmitted”; and “the effectiveness of all FDA-approved methods of reducing the risk of contracting STIs,” among other topics. Each school board would determine the sex education curricula used, and the state department of education, with consultation from the state department of health, would be responsible for developing a list of sex education curricula that meet the requirements of the legislation.
The bill also would mandate that no funds appropriated by the state for sex education contradict the requirements of the legislation. Such a policy would cause the state to drastically alter its previous funding provisions for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Historically, Pennsylvania has been one of the largest recipients of federal funding allocated for abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction and the only state that received congressional earmarks for such programming. For Fiscal Years 2004, 2005, 2008, and 2009, Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) oversaw the allocation of more than $8.5 million in earmarked funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—the majority of which went to Pennsylvania. For Fiscal Year 2009 the state received $528,000 alone in earmarked funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage programming, which was distributed to 22 local organizations and agencies.
Furthermore, while Pennsylvania was one of the earliest states to reject federal Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage funding, the state has reapplied for the funds in recent years. The state first rejected the Title V abstinence-only funds in Fiscal Year 2002; however, Pennsylvania chose to reapply for the funding in Fiscal Year 2006, although the award was returned in full to the federal government due to the shortened time period allotted for the disbursement of funds.[i] Pennsylvania also reapplied to the program for Fiscal Year 2009 and received $94,780 in funding.
If HB 1163 passes, the state would no longer be able to allocate funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage programming; however, more comprehensive sex education programming provided in schools could be supported by federal funding from the new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative and Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP). In an article published in the Pennsylvania Patriot-News, Representative Wagner stated that if the bill passes such federal funding could be used to offset costs incurred by school districts to implement the new policy.[ii]
Baton Rouge, LA—One day after the passage of the Healthy Youth Act by the Pennsylvania House Education Committee, the Louisiana House Education Committee passed HB 529 to require sex education in schools. The bill, which is sponsored by Representative Patricia Smith (D-Baton Rouge), was passed on April 28, 2010 by a vote of 10–6. If passed, the bill would have required all school districts to teach human sexuality instruction to students in grades 4 through 12 and would go into effect for the 2011–12 school year. Such instruction would include “information about human sexuality as a normal and healthy aspect of human development” and teach the “benefits of abstinence and delaying sexual activity” as well as the “importance of using contraceptives and barrier methods to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections,” among other topics.
Current Louisiana law does not require school districts to provide sex education.[iii] In fact, state law prohibits sex education from being provided in grades K–6, except in Orleans Parish, where instruction may be provided beginning in the third grade.[iv] In accordance with the law, the major emphasis of sex education must be “to encourage sexual abstinence between unmarried persons.” According to Representative Smith, only 17 out of Louisiana’s 69 school districts are currently providing sex education.[v]
On Monday, May 17, the bill came to a full house vote, where it was defeated 67–23. During the floor debate, proponents of the bill argued for the need to provide comprehensive sex education in schools due to the state’s high rates of sexually transmitted infections. Louisiana ranks ninth in reported cases of Chlamydia, fifth in cases of gonorrhea, and first in cases of primary and secondary syphilis among young people ages 15–19 in the United States.[vi] “We have a problem in our society today, ladies and gentlemen,” commented Rep. Patricia Smith. “No one can stop anyone from doing what they want to do. But the most important thing is to provide accurate information to our young people about the risks of sexual activity.”[vii] Rep. John Bel Edwards (D-Amite), another supporter of the bill, also commented that the state’s high rate of STDs corresponds with the state’s “chief focus” on abstinence-only instruction in public schools.[viii]
Opponents of the bill argued that sex education should be the responsibility of parents. Some representatives even appeared to intentionally attempt to derail any serious consideration of the measure by asking questions to distort the bill’s intent in the minds of fellow legislators. For example, Representative John LaBruzzo (R-Metairie), had the gumption to ask whether the bill “would require the teaching of masturbation and homosexuality.”[ix] The bill, of course, in no way includes such a requirement. Representative LaBruzzo additionally asked, “You can talk to a nine-year-old about condoms?” The bill calls for age-appropriate information to be taught, which would provide students instruction based on the developmental stage of that particular age group. Likewise, Rep. Bobby Badon (D-Carencro) seemed to try to invalidate comprehensive sex education as an academic subject and one that students would take seriously, asking, “Do you think they would learn or would there be a big party in there?”[x]
In fact, efforts to delegitimize the bill and its intent have colored the legislation proceedings ever since the bill passed out of the House Education Committee. On Monday, May 10, a folded flier with a condom attached to it was sent to select legislators’ offices.[xi] A former lobbyist, Leslie Ellison, was identified by Representative Smith as the person responsible for the prank. The flier stated, “Vote NO to mandatory sex education in public schools for children as young as 9-years-old,” as well as stating, “this is Planned Parenthood model legislation.”[xii] The incident sparked Representative Smith to demand that the House change its policy for mail delivery, due to the security threat of having such unmarked letters delivered to legislators’ offices.[xiii]
“It is distressing that a bill clearly designed to address young people’s need for information about their sexual health is not a piece of legislation that some lawmakers in Louisiana feel should be considered seriously,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). “This is a travesty given that young people in the state will continue to pay the price for miseducation.”
[i] See the Fiscal Year 2008 edition of the SIECUS Pennsylvania State Profile at <http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Page.ViewPage&PageID=1146>.
[ii] Jan Murphy, “Pennsylvania House Education Committee Approves Bill to Mandate Sex Education in Public Schools,” Patriot News, 28 April 2010, accessed 14 May 2010, <http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2010/04/pennsylvania_house_education_c.html>.
[iii] Louisiana Education Code, §17:279, accessed 14 May 2010, <http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=80412>.
[iv] Louisiana Education Code, §17:281(A)(1)(a), accessed 14 May 2010, <http://www.legis.state.la.us/lss/lss.asp?doc=80423>.
[v] Associated Press, “Bill Would Require Schools to Teach Sex Education,” Leesville Daily Leader, 30 April 2010, accessed 14 May 2010, <http://www.leesvilledailyleader.com/news/education/x57976641/Bill-would-require-schools-to-teach-sex-education>.
[vii] Bill Barrow, “House Says No to Teaching Comprehensive Sex Education in Louisiana Public Schools,” Times-Picayune, 17 May 2010, accessed 27 May 2010, <http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2010/05/house_says_no_to_teaching_comp.html>.
[viii] Will Sentell, “Legislators Vote Down Sex Ed Bill,” Baton Rouge Advocate, 18 May 2010, accessed 27 May 2010, <http://www.2theadvocate.com/news/94030014.html?index=1&c=y>.
[ix] Barrow, “House Says No to Teaching Comprehensive Sex Education in Louisiana Public Schools.”
[xi] Will Sentell, “Condom Comment Upsets Lawmaker,” Advocate (Baton Rouge, LA), 12 May 2010, accessed 27 May 2010, <http://www.2theadvocate.com/news/legislature/93527844.html?index=1&c=y>.