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The Long, Winding Road that Led to the SBOE’s Decision for Texas Schools to Teach Abstinence-Plus Sex Education

Textbook revisions generally come after the SBOE votes on standards, then, textbook writers draft materials based on those guidelines and present them to the board. The last time those guidelines were revised was in 1994, the last year Democrats won a statewide election in Texas. The Christian right, which recognized the SBOE as a key battleground of Texas’ culture wars between the religious right and progressive left, had begun its rise within the Republican Party in the late 1980s and built a strong faction on the board by the early 1990s.

When textbook publishers submitted materials for adoption in 1994, they fielded vocal objections from staunch abstinence-only critics on and off the board. Controversy over chapters that included information on condoms and other types of contraception was just the tip of the iceberg: Sections on STI and HIV prevention were contested. The number for an AIDS helpline was removed. And some critics claimed that illustrations of genitalia, including those of self-examinations for breast and testicular cancer, were too graphic for high school students.

In the 1990s, there were so many demands for changes at the textbook adoption stage that SBOE members went back to the drawing board in 1997 and passed the restrictive standards in place today. The single standard mentioning methods of birth control, other than abstinence, called for students to “analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods.” When textbook publishers proposed new books seven years later in 2004, they were wary of pushing the boundaries, and submitted almost exclusively abstinence-only content.

Health and sex ed have been lightning rod issues for the State Board of Education, an office that has something of a bad reputation for legitimizing fringe fundamentalist Christian theories and mandating curriculum that has no basis in history or scientific fact. These antics have drawn unflattering attention to Texas from incredulous observers for years. The last big swell of media coverage on the board was in 2010 when former chairman Don McLeroy made news for undermining evolution in new biology textbooks, and doubling down on his position that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together.

In 2011, after widely ridiculed revisions of social studies followed—including mandates to teach Moses as a highly influential figure on the Founding Fathers—Don McLeroy was ousted by moderate Republican Thomas Ratliff, who served for six years. Ratliff brought on a “slow turn back to sanity,” according to Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) lobbyist Mark Wiggins. During Ratliff’s tenure, the center-right wing of the state’s Republican Party, science-believers who have at times been decried from the right as RINOs (Republican In Name Only), led the way.

While the ultra-conservative bloc from 2010 that Don McLeroy represented isn’t quite as dominant on the board today—chair Keven Ellis is closer to center-right—the ideological divide is still stark, and the religious right is still highly vocal. In 2019, the SBOE’s appointed seven content experts to give recommendations on sex education. That sparked controversy early on, as they included figures such as a divisive OB-GYN who refuses to prescribe birth control and a director of a religious crisis pregnancy center, which counsels patients against having abortions. “There are no actual criteria for what an expert looks like,” says the Texas Freedom Network’s Jules Mandel.“Four out of those seven are quite unqualified… and they have an agenda that’s really not based in fact.”

Read entire article at Texas Observer