CHAMPAIGN – Illinois schools that teach sex education will be required to provide information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases – not just abstinence – under a bill that Gov. Pat Quinn has said he’ll sign into law.
The bill, passed by the General Assembly this spring, would take effect Jan. 1 and is intended to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, said Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans, a co-sponsor of the legislation. Quinn’s office says he supports the legislation but hasn’t yet set a date to sign it.
“Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way, but the reality is that by the end of senior year in high school, two-thirds of our kids are saying that they’ve had sex,” Steans said.
It’s unclear how much the measure will affect what most schools already do. Some districts say they’re already meeting the bill’s requirements, although some statistics suggest that many others are not.
Cairo Unified School District in far southern Illinois already teaches what administrators consider a comprehensive sex education curriculum – abstinence, contraception and STDs.
“My belief is that we’re already doing it right,” Superintendent Andrea Evers said. “Looking at both sides of the issue and making sure the children know that the choice is theirs.”
The Illinois Board of Education doesn’t track how many of the state’s more than 860 public school districts provide sex education, or of those that do, what they teach.
But a 2008 University of Chicago study found that 93 percent of the state’s public school districts offered sex ed. About 65 percent of the sex ed teachers taught what researchers considered a comprehensive program, including contraception and STDs.
Steans and supporters of the new legislation believe that’s a serious gap that may contribute to high rates of STDs among teens in Illinois.
In Illinois, 35 percent of all chlamydia cases were among 15 to 19 year olds in 2011, according to state data for that year, the most recent available. Teens in that age range accounted for one-third of all gonorrhea cases reported in state that year.
“For me it really is best practices and what actually works,” Steans said.
Even so, that doesn’t mean all Illinois students will get the same message.
Illinois law now says abstinence should be taught as the norm, and school districts can opt out of teaching sex ed altogether.
Under the new legislation, districts still could decide not to teach sex ed, and parents will be able to hold their kids out of classes in districts that do teach it. But all schools that teach sex education would have to include information about contraception and STDs.
Some districts where abstinence is emphasized may try to make the case that they’re already meeting the new requirements.
The Chicago-based Abstinence and Marriage Education Partnership, which sells abstinence-based sex ed curricula, is telling its clients they don’t need to make any changes. The group’s programs already cover contraception, founder and Executive Director Scott Phelps said, just not in great detail.
“We don’t teach them how to use contraception, but we teach them what it is,” he said. “We don’t see how our curricula would in any way violate the new law.”
Since the state doesn’t track them, it isn’t clear which school districts have used abstinence-only curricula. Phelps declined to identify any of the districts he does business with, saying they don’t go out of their way to identify themselves to avoid being pressured by proponents of broader sex ed programs.
Others say they see the value in giving students more information.
Evers, the Cairo superintendent, said she believes the current sex ed program is helping to reduce teen pregnancies.
The town is located in Alexander County, which has the highest teen birth rate in the state, according to state statistics. In 2009, the most recent year for which county-level statistics are available, 21.9 percent of all births were to teenage mothers, compared to a statewide rate of 9.6 percent, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Last year Cairo High School, which has about 100 students, had one student pregnancy, Evers said. Students take sex education as part of health classes in the seventh grade and then again in the ninth grade with a slightly more advanced curriculum, Evers said.
“I think we’re improving,” she said, adding she doesn’t believe the district will have to change much, if anything, to comply with the new legislation. “We’re heading in the right direction.”
At Grant Middle School in Springfield, principal Tammie Bolden is waiting for instruction on how the legislation might affect what her school teaches, but she doesn’t anticipate any serious changes. The curriculum, offered to all of the school’s roughly 200 seventh-graders, already is comprehensive, she said.
“We’re still at the learning stage and understanding specifics,” she said. “I don’t think we would have to do a new curriculum. So it would just be some adjustments made.”
The bill is HB2675.