As Texas public schools move to expand sex education to younger students and include a wider range of topics, some state lawmakers want to make the process of selecting health curriculum more transparent.
During committee hearings on two separate Senate bills this session, parents voiced a range of concerns with human sexuality curriculum and instruction. They testified that some school programs were introducing sensitive sexual topics to children as early as third grade, and that a number of programs included controversial lessons such as those detailing oral and anal sex.
While Texas education law states that school districts must consider standards that reflect community values when selecting human sexuality curriculum, parents testified that they had been shut out of the process and were not provided with comprehensive information on the materials chosen.
Under current code, public school districts establish a “school health advisory council” or “SHAC” to consider standards that reflect “local community values.” Prior to making any changes to health and human sexuality education, the district must consider recommendations from its school health advisory council, but some say the laws governing SHAC composition and procedure are too vague and allow districts to hide proceedings and easily over-ride parental concerns.
Parent and former Austin ISD Pre-K teacher Caryl Ayala testified that parents were not given notice or included in the process before her district adopted “Welcoming Schools,” a curriculum that has stirred controversy for introducing sensitive aspects of human sexuality in the elementary grades. Ayala stated that she resigned after receiving training on the program and that once parents started asking questions, the district stopped sharing information and refused to provide any SHAC activity documentation.
Although Texas education code states that districts must provide a “detailed explanation of the council’s activities,” under the current law SHACs are not subject to Texas’ Open Meetings and Public Information laws.
Senate Bill 1854 by Sen. Angela Paxton (R-McKinney) provides a simple remedy. The bill clarifies that a local school health advisory council is a governmental body “for purposes of the open meetings law and the public information law.” Under SB 1854, which passed the Senate 27-4, public school districts would be required to give public notice of upcoming SHAC meetings and SHACs would have to operate under normal quorum rules, record meeting minutes, and make minutes available to the public.
But witnesses for another bill addressing school health advisory councils, SB 784, identified additional problems with council composition, procedures, and opportunity for parental involvement.
Lori Kuykendall, executive director of Aim for Success, a non-profit health education organization that provides curriculum to about 80 Texas school districts, has worked with SHACs across the state. She testified in a Senate Education Committee hearing that some councils are not representative of the community and do not include enough parental input.
“I’ve seen the need to clarify the role of and strengthen the effectiveness of SHACs and ensure that they are compliant with their original intent,” Kuykendall said.
Senator Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) introduced SB 784 to address problems with SHAC composition and conduct. While current law only requires school boards to appoint at least five of the SHAC members, SB 784 requires all members to be appointed by the board of trustees.
Hughes’ proposal also calls for the education commissioner to outline procedural rules for SHACs similar to those governing the State Board of Education, and requires districts to post the actual human sexuality curriculum on their websites and provide parents with complete copies on request.
Currently, districts are only required to provide parents with a “summary” of sex education content and allow parents to view materials under certain circumstances. Parent witness Deborah Simmons described being allowed by the Round Rock ISD administration to view a sex education textbook “in a warehouse” and “under close supervision.” She says she was not permitted to photograph or take any materials home for closer scrutiny.
Dr. Janet Realini testified in opposition to Hughes’ bill saying she had intellectual property concerns. Realini is the author of “Big Decisions,” a human sexuality curriculum that some parents have found objectionable. Anne Newman, a parent and grandparent witness at the Senate hearing on SB 1854, provided examples from Realini’s curriculum that included a “Birth Control Bingo” game, and condom role-playing exercises for students.
Both SB 1854 and SB 784 have passed the Senate with the latter being referred to the House Public Education Committee earlier today.
Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.