In Texas, a stand to teach 'abstinence only' in sex ed

Presidential politics isn't the only realm where the Texas way prevails. As a heavyweight in the $4.3 billion textbook market, the state puts its stamp on materials bound for many of the nation's classrooms.

On Friday, two messages came through loud and clear as the State Board of Education voted on a new list of approved health books: That abstinence should be taught without any textbook discussion of contraception. And that the books should be explicit about marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Texas is one of 21 states with a centralized process to review textbooks, but it's the second-biggest market. "If [interest] groups can be successful in California and Texas in getting some restrictions as to what content is covered, that will have a major influence on textbooks that are sold nationally," says Martha McCarthy, chancellor's professor of education at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Everything from evolution to multiculturalism has come up for scrutiny in textbook debates over the past century. But the origin of the state-approval process dates even further back to just after the Civil War. Southern states organized to keep out textbooks that they saw as disparaging the Confederacy, so Northern publishers began sending separate books with more palatable references, like "the War for Southern Independence," according to a September report on textbooks by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

The report criticizes states that dictate what books schools can purchase, saying the practice "entices extremist groups to hijack the curriculum, and papers the land with mediocre instructional materials." Textbook publishing is ripe for reform, it argues, because students spend somewhere between 50 percent and 90 percent of class and homework time focused on textbooks.

In hearings before Friday's vote in Texas, the debate centered on the discussion of abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in four high school books. Protect Our Kids, a coalition of educators, health experts, parents, and religious leaders, raised concerns that three of the books don't talk about condoms or other contraceptives at all, while one mentions latex condoms briefly.

Instead, all the books teach that abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy or STDs. One offers strategies such as going out in groups, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and getting plenty of rest to avoid having "to make a tough choice when you are tired."

"We agree that teens should remain abstinent," says Dan Quinn, communications director for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group and part of the coalition. "But [we want] basic, medically accurate information [for] students as they go forward in life."

The state curriculum standards require students to be able to "analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods," and Mr. Quinn wonders how students can do that when their books don't mention use the word "condom." "This is high school health class - for many of these kids it's the last opportunity to get this kind of lifesaving information," he says.

"What they're saying is we want a double standard taught - which confuses children," counters Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum and a supporter of the abstinence-only approach in the textbooks.

Publishers will provide information on contraceptives in free supplemental materials - to give local school boards flexibility about whether to include those lessons in their curricula. Charts about the effectiveness of various methods for preventing pregnancy and STDs are also included in the teachers' editions of the books.

"There's a united effort in the local school districts [to] know what the social mores are at the local level, so we're happy for [teachers] to be able to introduce what they know to be in line with what parents and administration agree to," Mrs. Adams says.

But some observers in Texas and beyond are concerned that the supplemental information won't make its way into the hands of most teens who need it.

An editorial in the Austin American-Statesman this summer pointed out that 15- to 17-year-old girls in Texas have the nation's highest pregnancy rate, and it urged schools not to buy the new textbooks. The decade-old books currently used in Austin high schools encourage abstinence, but also talk about condoms as a way to prevent the spread of STDs.

Some board members did request changes to middle school and high school books before approving them on Friday - but not the ones that Quinn had been hoping for. Publishers agreed to replace some gender-neutral references with words such as "husbands and wives," to satisfy concerns that students would get a subtle message approving of same-sex unions. Texas law does not allow gay marriage or recognize civil unions.

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