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Textbook debate in Texas over sex education

Texas is in the middle of a heated debate over sex education in state schools and an effort to change all references to birth control in textbooks to encourage abstinence with no mention of other forms of birth control or safe sex. NBC News Bethany Thomas reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Of the four state high school health textbooks under consideration in Texas this summer, one says teenagers should “get plenty of rest” if they want to avoid sexually transmitted diseases.  It also suggests students can help prevent pregnancies by respecting themselves. The book avoids any discussion of condoms. 

Abstinence is the preferred practice in two more submitted textbooks, which only vaguely refer to “barrier protection,” but never explain exactly what that term means. 

Only one book under review by the Texas State Board of Education references condoms.

However, an initial textbook review committee found that book, Essentials of Health and Wellness by Thomson Delmar Learning, “nonconforming” to state guidelines because the book did not emphasize abstinence enough.

That decision -- and the heated battle over what teenagers in Texas should know about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases -- has implications for sex education across the country.

A final decision on the next textbooks -- for the 2005-2006 academic year -- will be made in the fall. It will be watched closely by educators as well as by the multibillion dollar textbook publishing industry.

Behind California, Texas is the second-leading textbook buyer in the country; and combined with Florida the three states make up more than 30 percent of the country’s $4 billion-a-year market.

The State Board’s decision will help determine what publishers nationwide include in textbooks marketed in other states. 

Latest rift
Texas leads the nation in teenage pregnancies and opponents of the new textbooks say that encouraging abstinence, while ignoring any discussion of safe sex, is unrealistic and will leave students at a dangerous disadvantage.

"Texas has the nation’s highest teen birth rate among girls age 15 to 17, and nearly half of all new sexually transmitted disease infections occur among people age 15 to 24,” Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network told the Dallas Morning News.

“The new high school health textbooks the state Board of Education is considering fail to include complete and medically accurate information on sex education,” said Quinn.

State Board of Education member Mavis Knight supports the inclusion of both condoms and abstinence in the texts. Through education “you can empower the students to make an informed decision about what lifestyle they would like to pursue,” said Knight.

Other groups argue teachers give conflicting messages by teaching students both the practice of no sex and safe sex. 

“If you tack on another message, you are garbling the effect,” Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington group, told the Austin American Statesman.

But Knight believes an educated message is the best option. “I think teachers should teach both because that’s what education is—teaching students about the pros and cons and helping them make the best possible choice for themselves.”

The health textbook is the latest rift between socially conservative and liberal educational groups who have a history in Texas of prodding along political agendas to set the themes of state education. Last fall, scientific and religious groups argued for months over the inclusion of the evolution theory in biology books.

For years, the state has dictated the content to publishers and the book giants know that if they want to get purchased and distributed in Texas, they must abide by these guidelines or risk paying for costly revisions later. 

In 1994, conservative groups lobbied to change the health textbook by eliminating any mention of homosexuality or contraceptives, and detailed drawings of male and female anatomy. The modifications proved to be too pricey for the publisher, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, which had invested millions of dollars in the original copy, but ended up having to back out from the competition.

In an effort to avoid advocacy groups facing off against one another with charges of bias, the Texas Legislature adopted a new law in 1995 that limited the Board to only making changes to the book based on factual accuracy and compliance with state standards.

Texas state guidelines
State guidelines, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS specify that the health books must “analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods,” including the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. The standard also requires that textbooks discuss the effectiveness of remaining abstinent until marriage. 

The health textbook publishers insist the books comply with the TEKS standards because additional contraceptive methods are included in both the teacher’s additions and supplied student supplemental materials. The supplements do not have to be approved by the Board.

“Each district has the capability of deciding what best fits the needs of their students,” said Knight. “So, there will be some districts that will use the supplemental material and there will be others that wouldn’t.”

Opponents of the texts say the supplements will never be used because they aren’t durable and are too confusing to use.

Publishers can still make changes to the books, but all have to conform to the state guidelines in time for a vote in November. Any texts that fail to pass the vote of the board will not make it in the $20 million Texas market.

The State Board of Education will hold a public hearing on the textbooks in Austin on Sept. 8 before the final vote.  If the board approves them, they will be ready to hit the desks of Texas students by following school year.