We often hear questions about how the textbook wars in Texas affect what students learn across the country. Well, here’s another example for the file.
Last month parents and physicians sued the Clovis Unified School District in California over that district’s abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education policy. According to a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the lawsuit charges that the district is violating California law and putting teens’ health at risk by teaching students misinformation and denying them critical instruction about condoms and contraception. From the press release:
The textbook that Clovis Unified uses for high school sex education does not mention condoms at all, even in chapters about HIV/AIDS and on preventing STDs and unintended pregnancy. Instead, for example, the textbook lists that the ways to prevent STDs are to respect yourself, get plenty of rest, go out as a group and practice abstinence.
The curriculum teaches that all people, even adults, should avoid sexual activity until they are married. Additional materials compare a woman who is not a virgin to a dirty shoe and suggest that men are unable to stop themselves once they become sexually aroused.
We’re very familiar with the textbook they’re talking about — Lifetime Health from publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Holt submitted that textbook for adoption by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) in 2004. Just 10 years earlier, Holt had withdrawn an earlier health textbook from consideration in Texas after it had become the focus of relentless attacks by religious-right groups and abstinence-only advocates on and off the SBOE. That earlier textbook had included information on condoms and other forms of contraception and, primarily in its teacher’s edition, information about how to support young people who might be gay. The decision to withdraw its textbook from consideration no doubt cost Holt a lot of money — Texas is the second-largest purchaser of textbooks in the country. Apparently in an effort to avoid yet another controversy, in 2004 the company submitted a new textbook — Lifetime Health — that doesn’t have a shred of medically accurate information about contraception. In fact, the words “contraception” and “condom” don’t appear even in the index. Moreover, except for a brief mention of homosexuality in the teacher’s edition, the subject of sexual orientation is nowhere to be found.
Instead, Holt hired a prominent social conservative and abstinence-only advocate, Dr. Joseph McIlhaney, to help write its textbook. President George W. Bush had appointed McIlhaney, who heads a Texas-based pro-abstinence outfit called the Medical Institute, to serve on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. That appointment was very controversial. Critics argued that McIlhaney and his organization inaccurately suggest that condoms are far less effective than they actually are in preventing the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. As the online web magazine Salon has reported, in 1995 the Texas Department of Health sharply criticized a slide presentation McIlhaney’s organization was using around the state:
[The Department of Health's letter] included a detailed slide-by-slide critique, prepared by two doctors, a registered nurse and the director of the state’s HIV/STD Epidemiology Division, that pointed out a number of distorted, downright false and “ridiculous” statements in McIlhaney’s lesson. “Some of the data presented suffers from investigator bias,” the letter said. “Dr. McIlhaney’s presentation tended to report the outlier data as ‘proof’ that condoms don’t work rather than present those reports in the context of the entire data set. The only data that was reported in the presentation are those which supported his bias on the topics he addressed. Intellectual honesty demands that he present all the data.”
A Texas Freedom Network Education Fund report on sex education in Texas public schools, published in 2008, also noted how misleading data from the Medical Institute is found in various abstinence-only programs. Those programs dominate sex education classrooms in Texas schools. Media Matters for America has also exposed misleading statements McIlhaney has made about condoms and sex education in the news media.
So it’s not surprising that the textbook Holt asked McIlhaney to help write for Texas doesn’t mention condoms even once in a section on how to prevent the spread of STDs. Instead, the textbook gives students strategies such as “respect yourself, “choose friends who influence you in a positive way,” “go out as a group” and — bizarrely — “get plenty of rest” so that they make better decisions. Religious-righters on the State Board of Education purred in satisfaction when they approved the textbook in 2004.
And now students in California — and, no doubt, in many other states — are using the same flawed, abstinence-only textbook in their classrooms. That’s because, as we have said many times, what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas when it comes to textbooks.