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Sex Education, Lies and Textbooks: Health educators, medical experts and others testify in protest

July 14, 2004

Wednesday, July 14, was this year's first public hearing on the health textbooks by the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). One can visit the Texas Education Agency's website for a transcript. The Texas State Board is scheduled to vote on the textbooks on Friday, November 5.

The stakes in this hearing, in the one on September 8, and in the final vote scheduled for November 5 (just three days after the US presidential election) are seen by many as a struggle between science and ideology--in this case, between medically accurate information that can help ensure the health of US youth and evasions that quietly defer to the puritanical fantasies of the religious right.

Texas is the second largest textbook market, and the Texas State Board, which votes on the textbooks that can be taught in the state's public schools, essentially serve as gatekeepers. In the attempt to cater to the Bible Belt, publishers sometimes are willing to hedge on, if not disregard, empirically proven findings.

This year, with the delicate subject of sexuality on the SBOE agenda, publishers of three textbooks decided to drop any references to contraception, whether it be for birth control or for preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which include, but which are far from limited to, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that enables Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). (This information is supposedly included in "supplemental" materials, but those are not subject to approval by the SBOE; it is also not clear whether students will necessarily see the supplements.) Such evasions risk providing students with information that is both misleading and dangerous. The textbook proposed by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, for example, suggests that students "get plenty of rest" to avoid STDs. "When you're tired," it cautions, "it's hard to think."rn(The source of that advice, a Texas doctor by the name of Joe McIlhaney, Jr., came under fire by the Texas Department of Health for asserting that condoms do not prevent the spread of STDs. Interestingly enough, a fellow Texan, George W. Bush, appointed him to the President's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.)

The state's own health-education standards require that information on contraceptives and their degrees of effectiveness receive both attention and careful analysis in textbooks. Unfortunately, some publishers are shirking their responsibilities.

In an editorial ("Condom information vital to student's health," July 4), The Austin American-Statesman argues, "Parents and others should send publishers a message by telling their local school officials not to buy the three books that omit information on condoms, should the State Board of Education approve them later this year. Health professionals should also weigh in on the books: 'Health' by Glencoe-McGraw-Hill; 'Health and Wellness' by Glencoe-McGraw-Hill; and [the aforementioned] 'Lifetime Health' by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

"Just one book contains a brief discussion of condoms, 'Essentials of Health and Wellness', by Thomas Delmar Learning. It might be better to keep old health books now in use because they contain detailed information about abstinence and condoms. The $20 million the state plans to spend on new books could be put to better use, such as programs aimed at keeping students in school.

"In the long term, the [Texas State] Legislature must revoke the authority of the education board to choose textbooks. It's now clear that limiting its authority--as the Legislature did in 1995 to prevent textbook wars over ideology--wasn't enough. Social conservative board members--all Republican--opened loopholes in the law large enough to drive through 18-wheelers. Those loopholes are being used to circumvent state standards for the health textbooks in question."

The testimony at the July 14th hearing was overwhelmingly against the proposed textbooks, with health educators, medical experts, concerned parents and children, and even liberal clergy among the opposition. Few, if any, explicitly religious proponents of the textbooks spoke at this hearing, though representatives of the ultra-right Texas Justice Foundation presented views virtually indistinguishable from the religious right, as did SBOE member Terri Leo, from District 6, representing a portion of Harris County.

A stunning highlight in the hearing was an appearance by Frisco-based attorney Bernard Kaye, a dissenting member of the panel that reviewed the textbooks for the SBOE (pages 32 through 43 of the transcript). "I was in that room for a week," he said. "And I saw what went on. And I objected to the textbook that my group okayed because I was outvoted two to one. And one has to get on with life. But I immediately reserved a place at this proceeding." Kaye said, "I am ashamed of what is not in those books and what they do not cover. I don't claim that putting these things in the books will cure the birth-rate problem amongst unwed teenagers, but it may just help. And certainly not putting it in is not going to help. We have people come up and say, well, parents want no discussion of this. Some parents do want no discussion; others want the discussion. And then we had one person come up and say, well, this is what the White House wants. At the risk of offending everyone . . . what that man in the White House thinks about the sexual education of my grandchildren in Texas doesn't interest me one bit. . . . How dare he interfere. How dare he interfere to get the vote." A less surprising, but also informative, highlight was the appearance of Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization opposed to the religious right in this state (pages 130 through 146 of the transcript). She said, "What matters is: Do these four books meet the Texas curriculum? And I think it is quite, quite clear that they don't. And on behalf of our 17,000 members, I hope you will not vote to approve these books until they contain this lifesaving information." When asked by SBOE member Cynthia Thornton (District 10, which covers, among other places, Travis County) about the publishers' supplements that provide information about the effectiveness of condoms that the textbooks themselves lack, Smoot said, "The information has been segregated into supplements that are separate from the student edition, separate from the teacher editions. That information does not count for your purposes. It has not been submitted. It has--it is not over there. It has not been submitted. Legally, it doesn't count. Now, the publishers--we are not paying for it, either. I mean it comes free with the book to the building or to the teacher. And I know you have spent many years in a classroom. And you know that these kinds of things may end up in the cloak room gathering dust, that it makes it more complicated for the teacher, that these are soft cover. They are not durable. They are going to fall apart. But more to the point, the reason that they put items in a supplement is so that a teacher who is uncomfortable, a superintendent who is uncomfortable, or even a State Board of Education member who is uncomfortable can look the other way because it is not really in the book. And again, I would come back to, if multiplication is important enough to be in the Texas curriculum, it is important enough to be in the math book. And the same thing is true for this lifesaving information."

A little more unexpected was an exchange between Smoot and SBOE member David Bradley from District 7 in Southeast Texas. Bradley, firmly aligned with the religious right, suggested the current round of hearings as a rematch of sorts following the SBOE's vote last year in favor of biology textbooks that discussed evolution with no mention of the rearticulated version of creationism known as "intelligent design." At the conclusion of her testimony this year, he asked Smoot, "You remember our conversation at the end of the biology series. Remember out there in the hall?"

Smoot replied, "I remember it well. I remember when you told me how the vote was going to go down. And then you looked at me and you said, 'But next year, we get to talk about sex,' and you laughed."

Again, the next and last public hearing was held on Wednesday, September 8, before the final vote on Friday, November 5. For more information, one can visit the Texas Education Agency's website or check out this website's follow-up accounts on September hearing and the final vote.

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From the officers:

The audio and video from Steve Bratteng's July 13th lecture are now available.