Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tonight's flare up: Obama on sex ed

Some Obama supporters are upset with a McCain ad that, in the course of criticizing Obama's record on education, included a claim that he "accomplished" the passage of a bill requiring comprehensive sex education for kindergarteners.

Tom Foley links to what he calls 'the "Age Appropriate Sex Education Grant Program,' the latest — as in, most legible — version of a State bill that Barack Obama, while an Illinois senator, deliberated on (neither sponsored nor, as John McCain's "approved message" falsely puts it, "accomplished") in committee, including a link to the full text of the proposed legislation."

I'm not sure what this is supposed to mean, but if the claim is that it is the bill he links to is the one referred to in the McCain ad or identical to bill referenced by the ad, then he's wrong.

The ad referred to SB 99, a bill introduced in the 93rd General Assembly. It's text and history can be found here. It is not, as the bill Tom links to, a grant program, but a curricular mandate.

The bill proposed the elimination of certain existing requirements for comprehensive sex education programs including that:

(2) Course material and instruction shall teach
honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage.
(3) Course material and instruction shall stress
that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until
they are ready for marriage.
(4) Course material and instruction shall include a
discussion of the possible emotional and psychological
consequences of preadolescent and adolescent sexual
intercourse outside of marriage and the consequences of
unwanted adolescent pregnancy.

It also would have amended Illinois law to extend certain requirements for the content of sex ed and related programs from grades 6-12 to k-12. For example, it would have provided that:

Each class or course in comprehensive sex
education offered in any of grades K through 12 shall
include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted
infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread
of HIV.

It then goes on to specify certain other requirements for these comprehensive sex education programs.

The bill would have made essentially similar amendments to family life curricula, including the extension of its scope from grades 6-12 to k-12.

It also provided that:

The program established under this Act shall:

include, but not be limited to, the following major
educational areas as a basis for curricula in all elementary
and secondary schools in this State: human ecology and
health, human growth and development, the emotional,
psychological, physiological, hygienic and social
responsibilities of family life, including sexual abstinence
and prevention of unintended pregnancy.
prevention and control of disease, including age appropriate
instruction in grades K through 12 on the prevention of
sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention,

transmission and spread of HIV , public and environmental
health, consumer health, safety education and disaster
survival, mental health and illness, personal health habits,
alcohol, drug use, and abuse including the medical and legal
ramifications of alcohol, drug, and tobacco use, abuse during
pregnancy, sexual abstinence, tobacco,
nutrition, and dental health.

This passage applied to "comprehensive health education" and the changes that it would have made in existing law included, again, the extension of its scope to k-12 and the eliminate of the words "until marriage" after "sexual abstinence."

The bill did contain requirements that sexual abstinence be discussed as "a" method to prevent pregnancy and the transmission of sexual diseases. It included a requirement that instruction be age and developmentally appropriate (although it does not specify what that is) and it included some parental opt-out provisions and some requirements for instruction on statutory rape and the avoidance of sexual assault.

I say that the bill would have done this things because it apparently did not pass the full body. The ad's reference to the fact that the bill was an Obama accomplishment seems to refer to the fact that it passed the committee on Health & Human Services of which Obama was chair. He does not appear to be a sponsor of the bill. He did vote for it.

So - is this brief passage on Obama and sex ed fair? I think it's a bit of a stretch. The bill certainly would have expanded some form of sex education to kindergarten including, perhaps, something called comprehensive sex education. While the bill mandated that the material be age appropriate, you can't tell from the bill itself just what this mandated curriculum might be. One thing that seems clear is that it would have required education - in kindergarten - about STDs and HIV. It's not unreasonable to suggest that this may be a tad early. There was, in fact, an amendment to change the scope of the changes back to grades 6-12, but that was tabled.

Obama says that be bill simply required "warning young children about sexual predators and explaining concepts like 'good touch and bad touch.'" You really can't tell and, as noted above, it seems that it would require more than that. Even if Obama's claim were so, of course, some might argue that even that type of education harms more than it helps with kindergartners.

On the other hand, the ad implies more than it seems the bill would have delivered and I am not sure that you can call every bill that passes out of committee an "accomplishment" of its chairperson. Nor is it clear to me that all of the bills mandates would have been required of all schools as opposed to being required of those schools that chose to offer certain curriculums.

However, as these things go, I don't think its fair to say, as Tom Foley does, that it's a dive "headlong into the gutter." I am confident that I can and will do similar damage to Obama ads and claims. One that springs immediately to mind is Obama's repeated false claim that "John McCain is willing to send our troops into another hundred years of war in Iraq.”

Still that limited part of the ad could have been - and should have been - better phrased. Frankly, if we need to talk about this bill, I am a bit more concerned about the bill's deemphasis of abstinence and monogamous heterosexual marriage.


Anonymous said...

Some of these ads, on both sides, are in essence "push polling" as I understand the term. Pathetic. "How would you feel about Barack Obama if you knew he hung out with unrepentent 60's radicals?" Oops. That's actually accurate enough to pass muster as a legit question....

John Foust said...

One thing that seems clear is that it would have required education - in kindergarten - about STDs and HIV. It's not unreasonable to suggest that this may be a tad early.

No, it is not clear that would happen. That's what the "age appropriate" clause is about. How can you substantiate your claim? Is there any school, anywhere, where their curriculum asks kindergarteners to learn about STDs and HIV? Did you invent this on your own, or are you repeating something that someone else imagined?

Answer: There isn't. "Age appropriate" may be a term of art in the education business, but it shouldn't be difficult for any reasoning adult to understand that kindergarteners won't be quizzed on STDs. It seems a bit paranoid to suggest but it might happen, therefore it will happen everywhere. Yes, you "really can tell" what it might mean. Go look. Don't wave your hands and jump to conclusions.

What would have to happen for kindergartners to learn about HIV? Let's see, a C&I director would need to decide, in their professional opinion and the health teachers they work with, that this was age-appropriate and even as a scientific concept, understandable by kindergarteners. Their evil plan would undergo review by a superintendent, at least, and then a school board and its health curriculum review committee, no doubt including parents, and then approved by a school board. The process would probably take 6 to 18 months, just like any other curriculum change. Does this seem probable to you?

If you didn't understand what "age appropriate" might mean, there must be hundreds of state and school district curriculum guides online that would show you what a kindergartner might learn about.

If you couldn't find one of those, call your favorite school district and ask the curriculum director what "age appropriate" means in their health classes.

But please don't jump to the most extreme position possible and claim "it is clear" that Obama wanted kindergartners to learn about chlamydia before many of them can read. Why not go all the way and suggest that they'll be practicing with condoms in pre-K?

A district could very well decide that age-appropriate instruction for kindergartners is almost nothing at all, akin to the notions of personal space, no hitting or inappropriate touching, that there exist differences between girl's and boy's bodies without much detail, etc.

Why, it seems like only yesterday that Romney tried to lob this at Obama.

Rick Esenberg said...


Here's how I substantiate my claim: By reading what the law says. The reason that it is clear is that the bill,as it passed the committee, expressly called for education on STDs (and other matters) in grades k through 12. Having done that, it would be hard to argue that such education is not age appropriate at the early grade levels. If it was, then the legislature wouldn't have amended the bill to require it. I know that you are not a lawyer, but this is a common and well accepted principle of statutory instruction.

That other districts in other places don't do this is irrelevant. What would matter, had the law passed, is what this particular bill required.

I suspect - at least I hope - that no public school would have been stupid enough to actually do it but the legal requirement - supported by Obama - would have remained.

In fact, the problem I point out must have been made once the bill passed out of committee because, as I point out, there was an amendment to rescind the expansion of the grade levels which has passed Obama's committee.

I know that you are invested in saying that the McCain ad was a "lie" and I agree that it creates an impression that the bill was worse than it actually was and I have criticized it. But ut it is simply not the case that the charge made in the ad is completely untrue.

John Foust said...

IANAL, but Wis. Stat. 118.019 looks like it's been around since 1985 and if districts include human development classes, they "shall offer information and instruction appropriate to each grade level and the age and level of maturity of the pupils" and says they may include discussion of a number of topics. Although STDs are not explicitly listed, I can imagine it falls within several of the topics. Abstinence-favored education is required and explicitly mentions HIV.

So why aren't Wisconsin kindergarteners being taught about HIV? Do you see many districts around here feeling compelled to teach kindergarteners about herpes? Or are they following the age-appropriate criteria, which is number two in the Illinois bill, right behind "just the facts"?

Having done that, it would be hard to argue that such education is not age appropriate at the early grade levels. Really? What is age- and developmentally appropriate about teaching kindergarteners about STDs?

Or are you suggesting that this bill was flawed because the age-appropriate clause was effectively meaningless, that all the listed topics must be taught at all levels?

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight -- this was someone else's bill and Obama merely voted for it as a member of the Illinois Senate. On the basis of his vote for the bill he gets castigated as supporting telling kindergartners all about sex? This becomes the basis for another McCain lying television commercial?

What a sad state of affairs this campaign has become. McCain and his merry band of thugs will do ANYTHING to avoid talking about actual, legitimate issues.

Shame, shame upon them, and shame upon you, too, little man, for going along with this crud. I understand the plan, for if I was running as a Republican on the record of the idiot Shrub Bush, I would also do ANYTHING not to talk about reality.

Rick Esenberg said...


The Wisconsin statute isn't worded the same way as the Illinois bill. The Illinois bill amended the law to require that certain specified things be taught, not just to kids in grades 6-12 as before, but to grades k-12 Yes, there was a general requirement that it be age appropriate but there is a principle of statutory construction that the specific controls the general. The specific is that certain types of education should be provided to grades k-12. The bill proposed to amend the statute to provide precisely that as opposed to the current requirement that it only be provided in grades 6-12. Just what that instruction would be was left to the bureaucracy.

Now, it could be that courts could have interpreted the law not to require such teaching (principles of construction are mostly, but not always, followed because they are not completely consistent)and it may be that the agencies would have adopted a more sensible construction and no one would challenge it. But much of what lawyers do is to protect against the unexpected. A prudent lawyer- if they believed as Obama says he does - would have tried to remove any doubt.

Of course, I have said that this sliver of the ad claims more than I think it should. Other parts of it are far more significant and the attempt to focus on this little bit is its own bit of gotcha politics. I was drawn to it because I try to throw some legal accuracy on arguments in the local blogs and Tom's post either claimed or implied that he was explicating the law in question and he wasn't.

But, if you want more legal education, you should apply. We'd love to have you.

John Foust said...

Yes, I've been accused of being a lawyer, but only when someone wanted to disparage me or accuse me of having an unfair advantage in understanding of the law. I was married to one for a decade, so perhaps it rubbed off. I do my best to try to parse the Statutes and their weavings of may and shall. I was not surprised to see no definition of "age appropriate". Having watched the sausage being made in Madison, and studying bills in which I have a dedicated personal interest, I've been appalled at the barn doors they leave open. Even mighty legislators claim to feel powerless to change phrases that they may recognize as wrong, weak or an obvious loophole. "It's on a fast track, no time to change it now, let someone challenge it, we'll fix it next session." There are moments where no one seems to claim ownership of particular language. At those moments, I wonder which lobbyist gave campaign contributions. My uneducated impression was the opposite of yours: I would've called the age-appropriate the specific because it modifies the K-12 general. Either way, they're not actually in conflict, are they?

The committee's errors in 2005 are to be laid at Obama's feet today? Stat. 27-9.1(a) had previously stated that 6-12 needs to learn about AIDS, but it was changed to K-12 and extended to other STIs. Stat. 27-9.1(c)(2) "All course material and instruction shall be age appropriate" was augmented by "and developmentally appropriate." Did they recognize that it would be tough to talk to kindergarteners about viruses that make cooties seem perfectly logical?

Or were Republicans up in arms about the other edits, like the ones in the very next paragraph, where the language changed from "All public elementary, junior high, and senior high school classes that teach sex education and discuss sexual intercouse shall emphasize that abstinence is the expected norm in that abstinence is the only protection that is 100% effective against unwanted teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) when transmitted sexually" to "All public elementary, junior high, and senior high school classes that teach sex education and discuss sexual activity or behavior shall emphasize that abstinence is an effective method of preventing unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and HIV when transmitted sexually". There are other strikes regarding the magical status of heterosexual marriage, the general badness of sex and "alternatives to abortion" as well as Dem-scented additions about non-consensual sex and unwanted advances. Was this a gay-marriage, abstinence and abortion battle in 2005?

Anonymous said...

Anony 9:19-

Legislation that Obama voted for is an "actual, legitimate issue." Same is true for McCain. While you might want to believe that this stuff is nothing more than lies and demagoguery from McCain, it is relevant to understand what types of laws Obama and McCain might support in the future.