Saving Sex Ed

Posted Feb. 13, 2011, at 6:15 p.m.

Among the many ideologically bent legislative initiatives queuing up in the State House is a proposal that would radically alter the sex education curriculum now used in Maine public schools. The title of the proposal, “An Act to Require Parental Approval Before a Child Participates in a Sex Education Class,” sounds sensible enough. Parents should be included as much as possible in the education of their children, especially when it comes to matters that are inextricably linked to personal morality and faith. But by most measures, the comprehensive sex education programs chosen by local administrators for use in Maine schools work just fine as is.

Drawing on 2005 data, the most recent available, the Guttmacher Institute found that Maine was 48th in pregnancy rates for the 15- to 19-year-old population. And Maine’s abortion rate was 33rd in the nation. The Kaiser Family Foundation, drawing on 2006 data, found that Maine’s abortion rate for those between the ages of 15 and 44 was 10 per thousand compared with the national rate of 16 per thousand.

If most agree that teen pregnancy and abortion are not desirable outcomes, then Maine is clearly doing something right. And that something may be its comprehensive sex education programs.

Rep. Jarrod Crockett, R-Bethel, has sponsored the parental approval resolve (it has yet to be assigned an LD number). The substance of the proposal is to require parental approval for students to complete sex education units. Currently, all students are included in the class unless parents request that they be excused.

The right of parents to exclude their children from being taught sensitive subject matter — and subject matter that often includes values — must not be breached. But Rep. Crockett’s change would likely mean that many students would be excluded simply because their parents hadn’t bothered to complete the paperwork, or because the students forgot to seek their approval or were too embarrassed to broach the subject with their parents.

Sadly, the students from poorly functioning households, who probably need the sex education the most, would not get it.

There are some very important arguments to be had around sex. Since surveys show that 25 percent of teens have had intercourse by the end of 10th grade and half of high school seniors have had intercourse, it is a safe bet that abstinence-only will not suffice. But parents who are wary of handing teens condoms because they believe it gives them the green light for sex also have a legitimate concern.

These arguments should continue, but the upshot of Rep. Crockett’s proposal is that sex education as we know it would end. Parents should be the first source of knowledge and values for their children on sexual matters. But state policies should seek to sustain the greatest good for the greatest number. The current sex education curriculum does that.

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