California's Sex Education Program: Ongoing Struggles Behind the Success Story

By: Phyllida Burlingame

California's sex education policies are the envy of most other states. California is alone in having never accepted Title V federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funds, and state laws require that sex education in schools and state-funded community programs be comprehensive and bias-free. California's laws have served as models for other states and the federal Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act legislation. Recently, the Guttmacher Institute praised California as being way out front in preventing unintended pregnancy among teens, in part because of the state's embrace of comprehensive sex education.

California's policies have undeniably made a positive impact on sex education in the state. But, unfortunately, sex education advocates can't dust off our hands and move on. Many California public schools are still providing abstinence-only-until marriage programs, in spite of policies that forbid them.

In the six years since the sex education law was enacted, I've talked with countless parents complaining that outside agencies are coming into their schools to teach students about purity, condom ineffectiveness, and how their lives will be ruined if they engage in sex outside of marriage. How is this possible?

The gap between policy and practice in California reflects an ongoing challenge: implementation. In California, we have over 1,000 school districts and only one person at the California Department of Education who works on sex education. While the state does evaluate school districts for compliance with the law, its capacity is extremely limited: this year, only three districts have been reviewed. Without a powerful enforcement mechanism, school districts feel that they can ignore – or creatively misinterpret – the law with impunity.

Advocates for comprehensive sex education therefore can't sit back and expect all school districts to implement the law on their own, or for the California Department of Education to force them to do it. To ensure that the instruction called for by law is actually presented to students, we need to keep working at the state level and in our communities.

While we still have our work cut out for us, California sex education advocates have made significant progress in leveraging the law to move school districts away from abstinence-only programs, through a combination of administrative advocacy, community organizing, and coalition building.

Getting State Agencies To Step Up

State agencies can seem like an impenetrable bureaucratic thicket, but finding a way through the thicket can be invaluable, since these agencies have extensive reach into local school districts and communities. They also play a key role in interpreting legislation and deciding how to incorporate it into their administrative processes, such as adopting state-approved textbooks, developing state standards for what students should learn, or establishing the criteria for grant programs.

If left to their own devices, most state agencies adopt a weak response to implementing comprehensive sex education. They see it as too controversial. This is where the advocacy community can play a critical role. In California, we established relationships with key players, both public and private, and identified opportunities for strategic intervention. This approach has borne fruit in many ways:

  • California's state superintendent sent a letter to all school districts specifying that abstinence-only education was not permitted in California public schools, and the Department of Education posted extensive information about the law on its website;

  • The California School Boards Association (CSBA) issued a more clear and robust model sex education policy for local school districts to adopt;

  • We successfully intervened in California's adoption of standards for health education, insisting that the standards reflect the requirements of the sex education law and include clear messages regarding sexual orientation and condoms and contraception.

  • Since charter schools represent a growing segment of public schools in California, we partnered with the California Charter Schools Association to issue a statement in support of comprehensive sex education and educate their membership about California's policies.

Taken together, these actions solidify and strengthen California's embrace of comprehensive sex education. They also provide tools for local activists to use.

Engaging the Community

Many school districts simply won't implement comprehensive sex education without being pressured by an organized group of parents, students and community members.

A case in point: As recently as 2008 here in the progressive Bay Area, the Fremont school district was using an agency that received federal Community Based Abstinence Education funds. The curriculum criticized unmarried couples who "mate" and have children, provided inaccurate information about condom effectiveness, and included anti-abortion bias.

The ACLU of Northern California and Bay Area Communities for Health Education (BACHE, a parent-founded organization that mobilizes other parents around sex education) began organizing local community members and launched an effort to replace the abstinence-only provider with comprehensive sex education. Using the law as leverage and relying on tools such as the CSBA model policy and the letter from the state Department of Education, Fremont parents, students, teachers and community members spoke at school board meetings, gained a majority on the district's sex education oversight committee, and presented the district with a concrete list of problems and proposed solutions.

The Fremont school district had long been in the sway of a small group of ardent abstinence-only supporters, but faced with overwhelming community opposition to the abstinence-only-until-marriage program and the reality that it was breaking the law, the district changed course and adopted comprehensive sex education in both middle and high schools. The ACLU and BACHE are now teaming up on a similar effort in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. Watch a video featuring Renee Walker, the parent founder of BACHE, talking about the value of community-based work.

Organizing local communities is labor-intensive, but the rewards are great. School districts often hide behind perceived community opposition as a reason not to improve their sex education instruction. "This is a conservative community," district officials will say. "People here won't support teaching anything other than abstinence." That argument is quickly deflated when they're faced with a mobilized, representative cross-section of the community arguing persuasively about why they support comprehensive sex education and demanding accountability from their local schools.

Organizing also increases the chances that change will be sustainable over time, since the community is both invested in the outcome and still on site to monitor the situation and make sure no back-sliding occurs. Also, once community members connect with each other in support of comprehensive sex education, they can also turn their energy in support of other important causes. The Fremont group, for example, after having achieved their sex education victory over a year ago, have now re-energized to push the district to recognize Harvey Milk Day, recently adopted by the state to honor the gay rights leader.

The fact that community members in Fremont who organized in support of sex education are now fighting to recognize an LGBTQ civil rights day demonstrates a key truth about sex education: it stands at the intersection of many issues and can serve as a bridge between them.

In its most narrow conception, sex education advocacy is about implementing programs that prevent teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. But when approached from a reproductive justice perspective that recognizes all the factors that can negatively affect young people's health–including racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, immigration status, and language barriers–the goal of sex education advocacy expands from preventing unintended pregnancy and disease to promoting a holistic vision of well-being for young people. By connecting with parents' deeply held desire for healthy children and healthy communities, this approach has the potential to bring together a much wider cross-section of the community, and to engage them on a wider range of issues.

Making Connections Across Communities

Back in 2002, when we were contemplating sex education legislation, the ACLU of Northern California and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California brought together educators, researchers, policy advocates and community-based organizations to discuss problems with the sex education then being taught in schools, and to strategize policy solutions.

Now called the California Sex Education Roundtable, and additionally convened by California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, this group promotes networking, cross-fertilization of ideas, and collaborative action. For example, the Public Health Institute, a research organization, conducted a survey of California parents' support for comprehensive sex education, the results of which were widely used by other Roundtable members in their local efforts. California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice have created toolkits for working on sex education with the Latina/o and Asian communities, respectively, and have brought the voices of communities of color into statewide administrative and legislative advocacy efforts.

By developing a network that informs work at both the state and local levels and includes the perspectives of members from a range of disciplines and contexts, the Sex Education Roundtable has played a key role in furthering sex education implementation in California.

In It to Win It

Before implementation comes into play, of course, a policy must be enacted. Many states are still struggling to achieve this goal. But it's worth remembering that policy change, while incredibly important, is only the first step. Ahead lies the long road to policy implementation, which is challenging, creative and rewarding. With a long-term commitment and creative advocacy rooted in the community, progress becomes not just necessary, but attainable.

California's sex education law requires that instruction:

  • Be medically accurate, science-based and age-appropriate
  • Include thorough information about condoms and contraception, as well as information about how, when and why to delay sexual activity
  • Be free of bias based on gender, sexual orientation, and race or ethnicity
  • Be accessible to English learner students and students with disabilities
  • Teach skills for making healthy decisions

Resources For Parents and Community Members about Sex Education in California

Sex Education in California Public Schools Are Students Learning What They Need To Know

Order Your Health, Your Rights

Phyllida Burlingame is the Reproductive Justice Director at the ACLU of Northern California.