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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Still Off Base on Sex Ed

Several readers have written to us objecting to our story “Off Base on Sex Ed,” which said a McCain ad on sex education was “simply false.” These readers cite a story in the conservative National Review by Byron York headlined, “On Sex-Ed Ad, McCain Is Right.”

York is certainly entitled to his interpretation of the ad. We have read his article, which doesn’t mention FactCheck.org or our story, and we still find an ad that says Obama’s “one accomplishment” in education was “legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergarteners” to be “false.” On a few levels. We have gotten the impression that some readers assumed York’s article debunked ours without having actually read our piece. We encourage people to read the full story.

York’s main point is that the bill’s underlying purpose wasn’t to authorize teaching kids about “inappropriate touching,” as he says the Obama camp has suggested. We never said it was. This was a bill about sex education for all grades, not just kindergarteners. And, in fact, the McCain ad is misleading on this point.

We also never wrote that Obama said class material about “inappropriate touching” was the main purpose of the bill. Our article said that “Obama has also said he does not support, ‘explicit sex education to children in kindergarten’ ” and that 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.”

We also said that the bill “would have lowered the age at which students would begin what the bill termed ‘comprehensive sex education’ to include kindergarten” and that “it mandated the instruction be ‘age-appropriate’ for kindergarteners when addressing topics such as sexually transmitted diseases.” (Actually, we could have made clear that the “age-appropriate” line applied to all grades.)

York highlights similar points, quoting this line from the bill: “Each class or course in comprehensive sex education in any of grades K through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV.” And he says the bill “specified that ‘all sex education courses that discuss sexual activity or behavior…be age and developmentally appropriate.’ ”

Perhaps readers are wondering what could be “age appropriate” for kindergarteners, especially regarding sexually transmitted diseases? Good question, and it’s one that school boards would determine, not us. In fact, York asked the head of the Illinois Education Association exactly that question.

York: I suggested to [Ken] Swanson that the bill seemed to provide for HIV education for youngsters before the sixth grade, and perhaps as early as kindergarten. “As I recall the discussion, there was a conversation where in different places in the state – that was something that should be left to local circumstances,” Swanson told me. “What might be appropriate in an urban inner city might not be appropriate in a rural community. I don’t recall anybody, from our perspective, having a one-rule-fits-all vision.”

It’s worth noting that the bill, along with two others on family planning funding and contraceptive coverage in health insurance, were supported by leading public health organizations in the state, including the Illinois Public Health Association, the Illinois State Medical Society, the Cook County Department of Public Health, the Chicago Department of Public Health, and the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, as York also points out.