Raleigh, N.C. — Just about anyone could be an expert who signs off on sex education curriculum under a bill that cleared the House Rules Committee on Tuesday. That would open the door to "questionable" curricula that doesn't provide all the information teens need being taught in public schools, according to teen pregnancy prevention advocates.
"It's absolutely true that, as written right now, it (sex education curricula) could be determined by your auto mechanic, your hair dresser or your preacher," said Elizabeth Finley, communications director for SHIFT NC, a nonprofit focused on preventing teen pregnancy and curbing sexually transmitted diseases.
Senate Bill 279 initially dealt with the qualifications for license professional counselors. In the House Rules Committee, two sections were tacked on dealing with sex education in public schools. One section would require that schools teach about the hazards of sex trafficking. The other changes legislative language dealing with who must sign off on sex education curricula.
Lawmakers expect the bill to be heard in the House on Wednesday.
The current law reads that such course material must be "accepted by professionals and credentialed experts in the field of sexual health education." The new language would simply read "credentialed experts," widening the number of people who could sign off on sex education materials to just about anyone with any sort of certificate or degree.
Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania, said the current definition "so narrows the pool of folks who are qualified or credentialed to actually review the reproductive health curriculum, that it's a very small pool." Whitmire and Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake, both described the existing experts as "eccentric" and prone to rejecting material put forward by "well-respected" groups and individuals.
Whitmire specifically pointed to James Dobson and his Focus on the Family group, which provides religious-based materials that stress abstinence-only education. He said that one reason he was pushing the change in language is because schools that choose to use information like Dobson's stood to be challenged under current law.
Finley said that, while material urging abstinence only might be well-intentioned, it can do more harm than good. In the past five years, she said, the number of teen pregnancies has declined in the state even as the population has grown. That's a testament, she said, to curricula that recognize the need for information about condoms and other pregnancy prevention measures.
Whitmire said it should be up to each community what is taught in schools. The curricula is set by a combination of a school boards and a local health advisory committee.
"They make that decision," he said.
His language would give the local communities more options.
"We give them the opportunity to make well-informed decisions," he said.
Before House Rules voted to send the measure to the floor, they discussed a potential amendment that would narrow the definition of "expert" in the bill.
Stam said the list of expertise would include things like medicine, adolescent psychology or health education.
Finley said she was unsure whether that potential amendment, which will be offered on the floor, would keep less rigorous curricula out without first seeing it.
Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, said she believed the point of the new language was to reintroduce abstinence-only education into schools and was skeptical that the potential amendment would be strong enough.
"Clearly there's a hidden agenda here," Cotham said, adding that conservative lawmakers have sought to roll back sex education requirements ever since they were put in place. "We need to get our hands out of this."