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Off Base on Sex Ed

A McCain campaign ad claims Obama's "one accomplishment" was a bill to teach sex ed to kindergarten kids. Don't believe it.


A McCain-Palin campaign ad claims Obama’s "one accomplishment" in the area of education was "legislation to teach comprehensive sex education’ to kindergarteners." But the claim is simply false, and it dates back to Alan Keyes’ failed race against Obama for an open Senate seat in 2004.

Obama, contrary to the ad’s insinuation, does not support explicit sex education for kindergarteners. And the bill, which would have allowed only "age appropriate" material and a no-questions-asked opt-out policy for parents, was not his accomplishment to claim in any case, since he was not even a cosponsor – and the bill never left the state Senate.

In addition, the ad quotes unflattering assessments of the Illinois senator’s record on education but leaves out sometimes equally harsh criticism directed at McCain in the same forums.


The ad is called "Education" and has received a good bit of free airtime, having been run repeatedly on cable news networks. It pairs pictures of kindergarten children with Obama looking confused.

[TET ]


McCain-Palin 2008: "Education"

Announcer: Education Week says Obama “hasn’t made a significant mark on education.” That he’s “elusive” on accountability. “A staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly.” Obama’s one accomplishment? Legislation to teach “comprehensive sex education” to kindergarteners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.

John McCain: I’m John McCain and I approved this message[/TET]

A Factual Failure

The ad claims "Obama’s one accomplishment" in the realm of education was "legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergarteners."

It’s true that the phrase "comprehensive sex education" appeared in the bill, but little else in McCain’s claim is accurate. The ad refers to a bill Obama supported in the Illinois state Senate to update the sex education curriculum and make it "medically accurate." It would have lowered the age at which students would begin what the bill termed "comprehensive sex education" to include kindergarten. But it mandated the instruction be "age-appropriate" for kindergarteners when addressing topics such as sexually transmitted diseases. The bill also would have granted parents the opportunity to remove their children from the class without question:

SB 99: However, no pupil shall be required to take or participate in any family life class or course on HIV AIDS or family life instruction if his parent or guardian submits written objection thereto, and refusal to take or participate in such course or program shall not be reason for suspension or expulsion of such pupil.

The bill also called for all sex education course materials to include information that would help students recognize, among other activities, inappropriate touching, sexual assault and rape:

SB99: Course material and instruction shall discuss and provide
for the development of positive communication skills to maintain healthy relationships and avoid unwanted sexual activity. … Course material and instruction shall teach pupils … how to say no to unwanted sexual advances … and shall include information about verbal, physical, and visual sexual harassment, including without limitation nonconsensual sexual advances, nonconsensual physical sexual contact, and rape by an acquaintance. The course material and instruction shall contain methods of preventing sexual assault by an acquaintance, including exercising good judgment and avoiding behavior that impairs one’s judgment.

The bill passed in the Health and Human Services Committee with Democrats, including Obama, voting along party lines in support of it. But the measure promptly stalled and died in the full Senate, and no action has been taken on it since late 2005.

Obama is often quoted as saying that when it comes to sex education in public schools, “it’s the right thing to do … to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in schools,” placing an emphasis on the word "appropriate." But Obama has also said he does not support, "explicit sex education to children in kindergarten."

In a debate with Republican Alan Keyes, against whom Obama was running for an open seat in the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama made it clear that at least one reason he supported the bill was that it would help teach young kids to recognize inappropriate behavior and pedophiles:

Keyes, Oct. 21, 2004: Well, I had noticed that, in your voting, you had voted, at one point, that sex education should begin in kindergarten, and you justified it by saying that it would be "age-appropriate" sex education. [It] made me wonder just exactly what you think is "age-appropriate."

Obama: We have a existing law that mandates sex education in the schools. We want to make sure that it’s medically accurate and age-appropriate. Now, I’ll give you an example, because I have a six-year-old daughter and a three-year-old daughter, and one of the things my wife and I talked to our daughter about is the possibility of somebody touching them inappropriately, and what that might mean. And that was included specifically in the law, so that kindergarteners are able to exercise some possible protection against abuse, because I have family members as well as friends who suffered abuse at that age. So, that’s the kind of stuff that I was talking about in that piece of legislation.

Besides the Obama-Keyes race, this allegation also surfaced during this year’s party primaries when Mitt Romney claimed Obama supported sex education for five-year-olds. (Obama misleadingly fired back that Romney supported the same policy.)

His Only Accomplishment?

The ad claims the bill was Obama’s "one accomplishment." This is doubly false.  Obama was neither a cosponsor nor a sponsor of the sex education bill, which never got past "go" in the Senate. So it was not an "accomplishment" at all. Furthermore, Obama can properly claim a number of real accomplishments.

He was a cosponsor of what became the Chicago Education Reform Act of 2003, which allowed for an increase in the number of Chicago charter schools and required the Chicago Board of Education to enter into a formal partnership with the Chicago Teachers Union to "advance the Chicago Public Schools to the next level of education reform." He was also a cosponsor of a bipartisan bill to help Illinois high school graduates be eligible for in-state college tuition rates even if they weren’t U.S. citizens.

On the federal level, Obama sponsored three amendments to The America COMPETES Act, which became law in 2007. All three amendments were passed in the Senate by unanimous consent and became law. One amendment proposed language that would create a mentoring program for women and minority groups during their studies in Department of Energy programs. He also proposed language to support summer learning programs and boost their math curricula.  And he put forward a requirement that women and minorities be represented in the President’s Science and Technology Summit. Whether or not one considers any of these measures earth-shaking, they’re accomplishments nonetheless

Cherry-Picking Quotes

The ad also features three cherry-picked quotes from the media, highlighting negative comments about Obama’s record and ignoring those directed at McCain. The announcer quotes Education Week contributing blogger David Hoff, saying, "Education Week says Obama ‘hasn’t made a significant mark on education.’ "  The quote is accurate. But the ad leaves out a quote Hoff gathered from Arizona’s Casa Grande Elementary School Superintendent Frank Davidson:

Davidson (via Education Week): I don’t think [McCain] has a strong track record of putting education at the top of his priorities.

McCain had used the information about Obama before, and in response, blogger Hoff encouraged readers of the magazine’s election blog to "Read the Obama story and the McCain story and you can decide who has a better track record on K-12 issues." We agree, you should.

The ad then quotes a July 7 editorial from The Washington Post, which said "that he’s ‘elusive’ on accountability." Those words did appear in The Post‘s July 7 editorial. At the time, McCain had no education plan to critique, but later, in August, The Post revisited both candidates’ proposals and said McCain’s was "both late in coming and still a work in progress." It also said "of the two, Mr. Obama has given the issue more attention."

The last quote used in McCain’s ad is attributed to the Chicago Tribune and says that Obama is "a ‘staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly.’ " This is actually from a piece by Steve Chapman, former associate editor of The New Republic and contributing writer to Slate and the conservative publications The Weekly Standard and The National Review. The piece isn’t a Chicago Tribune editorial at all, though it’s made to appear that way in the ad. And Chapman, none too pleased about how his opinion piece was featured in the ad, responded in a Sept. 10 Tribune blog entry with this:

Chapman: … the ad itself doesn’t bother explaining how the candidates differ on school vouchers, the subject of my column. Instead, it insults our intelligence by expecting us to believe that Obama thinks kindergarteners should be taught how to use condoms before they’re taught to read. Right. And Joe Biden eats puppies for breakfast.

We couldn’t have said it better, Mr. Chapman.

–-by Emi Kolawole

Update, Sept. 18: Some readers have written to us objecting to this article while citing another story on the ad published in the National Review. Please see our post on The FactCheck Wire for our response.


Krol, Eric. "Obama clarifies sex ed views at Benedictine," Chicago Daily Herald. 6 Oct. 2004.

Hoff, David. McCain vs. Obama: The Whole Story. 29 Mar. 2008. Education Week. 10 Sep. 2008.

Editorial. Focus on School Reform. 7 Jul. 2008. The Washington Post. 10 Sep. 2008.

Bill Status SB099.  Illinois General Assembly.

U.S. Congressional Record. 27 Aug 2007. S5038