The ongoing battle over “inappropriate content” in Texas public schools raged on Tuesday as the State Board of Education declined to preliminarily adopt middle and high school health instructional materials that addressed such topics as contraception, gender identity and self-harm.
The decision could leave school districts to fend for themselves on how best to address new health curriculum standards approved just a year ago — in a less fevered environment.
Last November, the State Board of Education approved new curriculum standards — called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS — that included lessons on birth control, not just abstinence, starting in middle school.
In that same process, the board declined to include standards that would have defined and taught gender identity and sexual orientation.
“It feels like we’re about to leave a lot of districts in the dark with this,” said board member Aicha Davis, D-Dallas.
School systems, leaders and elected bodies have been under heightened scrutiny over the past year as conservative advocates and constituents stoked fights on library materials, mask mandates and the perceived infusion of critical race theory into lessons.
The 15-member state board voted along party lines to reject health materials crafted for middle school students from publishers Lessonbee Inc. and Human Kinetics.
Several board members — and a large portion of those who spoke Tuesday — objected to how those texts presented to sixth- to eighth-graders topics such as gender identity, abortion, masturbation and sexual arousal.
During public testimony, Mary Elizabeth Castle, a senior policy advisor for family-values nonprofit organization Texas Values, said materials from Lessonbee Inc. and Human Kinetics went beyond the scope of the TEKS changes.
“They encourage sexual activity at a young age; they mentioned consent, when we agreed on refusal skills in the TEKS. And then they had a topic of gender identity and sexual orientation that was not agreed on by the board,” Castle said.
On a 7-7 tie, the state board also failed to offer approval to middle school and high school content from publisher Goodheart-Wilcox, despite an assessment from SBOE staff that showed that the materials addressed 100% of TEKS expectations for students and teachers.
Only one set of materials was approved by the board, on a 7-6 vote: health education products for K-5 students from publisher QuaverEd. Those materials didn’t address any of the sex ed standards, instead focusing on items such as mental health, hygiene and responsible decision making.
Several of those who spoke in public testimony, however, objected to the online nature of the material from QuaverEd. Some worried that students would be tracked using this data; others said that working collaboratively with other students on sensitive concepts such as mental health would lead to bullying.
Deliberation from state board members was relatively brief, compared with four hours of public testimony on the materials.
Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, voted against all of the secondary-grade materials, saying that they “were not appropriate as they stand right now.” But she hinted that she might change her mind on the Goodheart-Wilcox materials if publishers moved to alter the content to indicate a preference for abstinence over birth control.
Publishers have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to make changes in response to questions raised by the committee or in public comment. The board will take a final vote on the materials on Friday.
Jay Johnson, R-Pampa, said he couldn’t give approval to any of the materials, given the position of his constituents.
“I probably couldn’t get seated in a restaurant or have my cleaning picked up,” Johnson said.
Will Hickman, R-Houston, was one of the few swing voters, offering tepid support for QuaverEd and Goodheart-Wilcox’s content.
“I don’t think we should have a vacuum where we adopt nothing,” he said. “These are, again, not perfect, but I think they’re good. And like we’ve said many times, the school districts can adopt these or not, but it’s just providing an option.”
Lawrence Allen Jr., D-Richmond, said by voting down all of the middle and high school content, the state board was unintentionally providing tacit approval to Goodheart-Wilcox’s material, since it was best aligned to the new state standards. Districts are free to select which materials they use.
While Hardy and others suggested that districts could be able to craft their own curriculum based on the TEKS, Davis — from Dallas — said that many smaller districts would lack the personnel to accomplish such a task.
In Texas, school districts aren’t required to teach sex education in health courses. Health classes were removed as a high school graduation requirement in 2009.
School districts can offer instruction in sex ed, after consultation with a school board-created health advisory committee. But a recent state law passed in 2021 requires that parents receive a “detailed description” of the content, requiring districts to get parental consent ability before providing sex ed instruction.
The 2020 TEKS revisions — upending standards put in place in 1997 — would have given school districts cover to teach beyond abstinence-only standards that had previously existed.
Texas has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, with approximately 24 out of every 1,000 girls ages 15-19 giving birth. As of 2016, the state had the highest level of repeat births among teens.