Today we saw a big reason why sex education is so awful in Texas, a state with one of the highest teen birth rates in the nation. Polling shows that 84 percent of registered voters in Texas want high school sex education classes to teach about birth control along with the importance of abstinence. But a vocal minority of abstinence-only activists use bullying and fear-mongering to keep effective sex education out of many public schools. And today’s public hearing before the Senate Education Committee in Austin provided a case study in how those tactics work.
The committee, chaired by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, heard testimony on Senate Bill 521. That bill would, in part, bar anyone affiliated with an abortion provider from teaching sex education in public schools. That and other new requirements in the bill would make it harder for students, especially in low-income districts, to get effective sex education.
It was clear in the committee’s morning session that the bill’s supporters had decided to launch an all-out assault on sex education and on any organization — including the Texas Freedom Network — that opposes abstinence-only programs that keep students ignorant.
Anti-abortion and abstinence-only pressure groups offered an avalanche of hair-on-fire distortions (“anal sex!” “drug-based sex education!”) about comprehensive sex education. They told senators that Planned Parenthood encourages young people to have “recreational sex” so the organization can make money on abortions later on. They absurdly claimed that a well-regarded sex education program from the Prevention Research Center at the University of Texas School of Public Health was all about teaching kids graphic sex techniques. And they charged — without offering a shred of evidence — that the Texas Freedom Network is promoting “false claims” about the dreadfully misleading abstinence-only programs that are common in the state’s public schools. (Apparently, the facts are difficult for some to handle.)
When opponents of the bill were finally given an opportunity to testify, TFN President Kathy Miller and others noted the serious problems with SB 521 — such as restricting the ability of local school districts to make their own decisions about how and what to teach students on sex education. The bill also creates bureaucratic rules for obtaining written permission from parents before allowing a student to participate in sex education classes in half or more of the state’s school districts. Those new mandates would make it harder for schools — especially in low-income areas — to provide sex education. And the bill ignores the requirements already in law that protect the right of parents to participate in the development of local sex education policies, to review sex education materials, and to keep their children out of any part of such classes if they choose.
Perhaps most astonishing was the uninformed bullying — and that’s really the best way to describe it — that Sen. Patrick directed toward the bill’s opponents. More than once he accused speakers of not having read the bill when they noted their concerns about various provisions. “This (bill) is simply to get Planned Parenthood out of the teaching,” Sen. Patrick insisted, ignoring half the bill. When opponents tried to correct this misinformation, Sen. Patrick talked over and bullied them. Watch, for example, this exchange between Sen. Patrick and Dr. Janet Realini, a physician with San Antonio-based Healthy Futures Alliance who was patiently trying to inform the committee about her concerns:
Sen. Donna Campbell, R-San Antonio: I think the wording is clear: it’s an abortion affiliate. And if you don’t say you’re an abortion affiliate, then that wouldn’t put you in this category.
Dr. Realini: But that’s not really the part of the bill that we’re trying to draw attention to. It’s really the second part.
Sen. Patrick: OK, so you would agree. You support that Planned Parenthood or an affiliate…
Dr. Realini: I don’t think our members would necessarily support. We haven’t really addressed that. We’re not about Planned Parenthood.
Sen. Patrick: OK, but that is the bill. Again, I ask people that come and testify for or against the bill, uh, you have to take a position. If you’re against, what you’re telling me is…
Dr. Realini: We’re against the bill for the reasons I’ve mentioned [earlier in her testimony].
Sen. Patrick: And you’re against the bill only because a written notice has to go home. Is there any reason you’re against the bill?
Dr. Realini: It’s because it provides, the parts of the bill that provide the obstacles that make it so difficult…
Sen. Patrick: Ma’am, there’s no obstacle here. Ma’am, with all due respect, it says the school must send a written notice home. You know, when you go on a field trip, you send a written notice home. It’s not an obstacle going to see the Capitol.
Dr. Realini: Well, in the real world it’s very difficult in research for…
Sen. Patrick (talking over Realini): So that’s your only obstacle. That’s your only objection to the bill.
Dr. Realini: There are three elements in there that make it very onerous for poor school districts, where the need is the highest and the parents really, we want to give the parents what they want.
That’s not the kind of exchange you should see in a public hearing at the Legislature. That’s the kind of browbeating you see from playground bullies. (Good on Dr. Realini for treating Sen. Patrick with considerably more courtesy than he offered her.)
We’ll have a lot more about today’s hearing. Stay tuned.
The committee postponed action on SB 521 until an undetermined future meeting.