Opponents of a controversial sex ed bill passed by Wisconsin legislators last week warn that if Gov. Jim Doyle signs the bill into law as he has promised, some local school districts will stage a revolt against the measure by ignoring it or dropping their human growth and development curriculum entirely.
“Did the state in its zeal to impose its own way even think about the consequences? Because a lot of districts are just going to just walk,” predicts Matt Sande, director of legislation at Pro-Life Wisconsin.
The proposed new law would require any Wisconsin public school district that offers a course in human growth and development — or sexual education — to teach students about sexually transmitted diseases and methods of safe sex, including contraception. Under current law districts can choose to provide only instruction focusing on abstinence or chastity.
The proposed new law doesn’t require school districts to offer such courses at all, however. School districts can drop their sex ed classes completely rather than comply, which is what Julaine Appling, president of Wisconsin Family Action, says her organization will encourage them to do in upcoming mailings. “This is a Planned Parenthood dream come true,” Appling says about the bill. “They have taken options away from local school districts. Now the choice is something Madison says is best or to have no human growth and development classes at all, which, quite honestly, is the better choice.”
Appling’s group will also encourage parents to opt out of having their child participate in a school’s sex education class, something allowed under previous state law as well as the new measure.
Supporters of the bill say such talk is all bark and no bite, pointing to polls they claim prove a large majority of Wisconsin residents support the comprehensive sexual education called for in the bill. “This is a very vocal minority,” says Nicole Safar, a legal and policy analyst with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, a major backer of the law. “But the public is not on their side.”
Neither Appling nor Sande, in fact, knew of any school districts that have already decided to drop their sex education curriculum.
Safar says that the law, variations of which have been proposed but defeated for close to a decade in a Legislature that until this year was controlled by Republicans, is long overdue. During lengthy and contentious hearings last fall, supporters claimed the measure was desperately needed to combat a sudden increase in teen pregnancies and exploding rates of sexually transmitted diseases among Wisconsin young people. Opponents claimed educating children about sexually transmitted diseases and contraception would only encourage them to have more sex. The Senate passed the bill 18-15 Thursday, with Democrats who now control the Senate for it and Republicans against it. The Assembly passed the bill with a partisan 48-43 vote in November. The Assembly accepted an amendment Thursday tacked on by the Senate and forwarded to Doyle that requires teachers to tell students they could face criminal charges and wind up on the sex offender registry for having sex with youths under 16.
Many of the Republican senators who oppose the measure are from more rural and conservative parts of the state, and they argue that the state’s increase in STDs is driven by soaring infection rates in cities like Madison and Milwaukee, both of which already offer fairly comprehensive sex ed instruction. Recently the Milwaukee School board even voted to distribute condoms in the city’s public high schools. It is not fair to impose a fix designed to address big city problems on everybody else, they argue.
“The thing that concerns me the most about the bill is that it pushes aside local community input,” says Senator Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. Under existing law, local committees which often included a mix of educators, officials, clergy and advocates, worked with school boards to design a curriculum at the local level. Olsen says administrators from a dozen school districts have contacted him to tell him the same thing: “We have community input, we meet regularly, we’ve worked things out. You guys in Madison don’t need to tell us what to do.”
Critics also pan language in the measure that states programs must use “instructional methods and materials that do not promote bias against pupils of any race, gender, sexual orientation, or ethic or cultural background or against sexually active pupils or pupils with disabilities.”
“What that means is you can’t tell them what’s right or wrong, you just have to be a purveyor of facts,” Olsen says. “Well, that’s sort of giving them a green light to go off and be sexually active.”
One of the bill’s most vocal opponents, Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, is especially scornful of the bill’s requirement that there be no “bias” based on a student’s sexual orientation, a protection he attempted to remove from the bill with an amendment that failed to get enough votes to pass. Grothman explains that he believes the topic should not be discussed at all in schools. “Would you want your daughter’s teacher in 7th grade talking with her about homosexuality?” he asks. “They should be talking about Algebra.”