COLUMBIA, SC — Sex education advocates are looking at the finish line as the Legislature nears passage of an update to the state’s 26-year-old health education law.
A Senate education panel OK’d a bill Thursday that would require public schools to teach “medically accurate” information about sex. School districts also would have to report to the state what they teach about health or face losing 1 percent of their state money.
The bill, which already has passed the S.C. House, still must clear the Senate Education Committee and the full Senate to have a chance of becoming law.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, said his proposal would help reduce sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies, which create steep obstacles for young people to overcome and come with a cost to taxpayers, estimated at $197 million a year.
It also would increase accountability for school districts, said Forrest Alton, chief executive of the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Districts now are supposed to report to the state Department of Education what they teach in health classes, but many do not.
According to the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, South Carolina’s teen birth rate has dropped 47 percent in 20 years – to 36.5 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19. But the state still has the 11th highest teen birth rate in the nation.
Abstinence groups – some of which receive millions of dollars in taxpayer money to create teaching materials and provide instruction or training to teachers – oppose changes to the state’s health education law.
Critics also have said the proposed changes could open the door to discussion of abortion and other topics that would encourage students to have sex or teach them how.
Alton said those claims are meant to scare lawmakers into leaving the law as it is.
There is “absolutely nothing about abortion” in the bill “other than to reiterate that that is not a topic that should be talked about in schools,” he said.
No one spoke against the bill at Thursday’s hearing, signaling the sex-ed update may be poised for smooth passage in the Senate – very different from the rocky year of negotiations the bill just completed.
To get the votes needed to pass in the House, lawmakers removed a provision of the bill that would have required sex-ed teachers be certified to teach the subject.
Skelton and other sex-ed advocates urged the Senate K-12 education panel Thursday to consider returning the certification requirement to the bill. The problem, Skelton said, is that some sex-ed instructors are teaching “distorted” information.
Skelton said he heard of a sports coach telling students, “‘The only thing better than sex is macaroni and cheese.’ We certainly don’t need that kind of thing going on in our classrooms.”
The committee OK’d the bill without the additional certification requirements.
The bill now goes to the full Senate Education Committee for consideration. But time is running out for lawmakers to pass the proposal. That committee could meet as late as May 28, a week before the General Assembly’s regular session ends.
In other legislative news
A look at other education proposals that advanced Thursday from a Senate panel:
• Cursive writing and multiplying: One bill, sponsored by Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, would require elementary students to learn cursive and memorize multiplication tables. Loftis said his 18-year-old grandson’s inability to read a note written in cursive in a birthday card led him to introduce the bill. Research, he said, also shows that cursive improves thinking, reading, writing, motor skills, self-confidence and discipline.
But the bill’s nearly $28 million price tag could spell trouble. A state budget office estimated it would cost $2.5 million in travel costs and $25 million in materials to teach cursive, including $100 to train each teacher, $1,000 for supplies for each classroom and $11 for a textbook for every student. State Department of Education officials said the $28 million was incorrect. They are working on another estimate that will be “much, much lower,” said spokesman Dino Teppara.
• Identifying, reporting sexual abuse: A bill sponsored by state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, would give students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, age-appropriate information about identifying and reporting sexual assault and abuse. The bill was inspired by Erin Merryn, an Illinois woman who was assaulted sexually as a child and now is leading an effort to pass legislation in states to teach children how to recognize sexual abuse and feel comfortable reporting it.
Norrell said Thursday two victims of child sexual abuse, who previously testified on her bill, said that, as children, they felt safest at school. “But it never occurred to them that they could tell a teacher what was happening to them at home and it could help stop the abuse.”
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