“Zero Tolerance” for Silenced Histories: Neglecting Civil Rights Education in Schools

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters' Shoulders

photo credit: Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders

It’s been a busy few weeks for education policy in America. (Then again, when is it not?)  Just last week, the College Board announced changes in the SAT to make the test a better assessment of school curricula and predictor of college success.  Mayor Bill DeBlasio and charter school champion Eva Moskowitz continued to butt heads over the role of charter schools in New York City.  The Center for American Progress released a new report, Beyond Bullying, focusing on LGBTQ students and the school-to-prison pipeline. And with the snow beginning to thaw and spring right around the corner, teachers and students are gearing up for a new onslaught of high-stakes testing designed to ensure “accountability” and “achievement.”

Many leading advocates of school choice and education “reform” are actually well-established right-wing players whose other political priorities—including anti-unionization efforts, regressive tax policies, and cuts to welfare—demonstrate little interest in defending public institutions or promoting racial justice.  Yet by using people of color as the spokespeople for privatization campaigns, these reformers can claim to be strengthening public schools and combating inequality even as they advance a pro-privatization agenda that is fundamentally at odds with commitments to racial and economic justice.

For example, as Political Research Associates’ fellow Rachel Tabachnick and others have documented, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has been a vocal advocate for vouchers and private school choice in Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.  Its founder, Howard Fuller, previously played a pivotal role in establishing a voucher program in Milwaukee.  The resulting voucher and corporate tax credit programs have helped redirect millions of public dollars from public schools to private schools.

People for the American Way has described BAEO—which was established in 2010 and receives major funding from both the Walton (i.e. Walmart) and Bradley Foundations—as “better known for supporting education privatization and affirmative action rollbacks than empowerment of the African-American community or low-income families.”  Indeed, the promise of the education reform movement to “close the achievement gap” and “end educational inequality” is disingenuous at best and empty and pernicious at worst when considering the role of its primary funders in perpetuating racial, economic, and gender inequality.

A few other recent news stories, however, have suggested ways to engage with substantive questions of racial justice in public schools.  President Obama, for example, recently announced “My Brother’s Keeper,” a new initiative that, while far from perfect (particularly in its neglect of female and LGBTQ students), is designed to support young men of color and intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center just released an updated version of Teaching the Movement, which evaluates civil rights education across the United States. The report serves as a powerful reminder that improving public schools must go beyond debates over high-stakes testing, reading comprehension, and complex fractions.  Unfortunately, the report also makes clear that we still have a long way to go.

The authors note that some states have made important improvements to their curricula since the report was first released in 2011. Still, 20 states still scored a big red “F” according to the SPLC’s criteria, and an additional 14 states still earned a “D.”  As the report’s authors state bluntly, “We remain concerned that students are likely to remember only two names and four words about the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and ‘I have a dream.’”

While education reformers remain hyper-focused on test scores and “achievement,” SPLC’s criticism regarding a lack of civil rights literacy is about far more than just getting 11th graders to ace the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam.  In his introduction to the report, Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes, 

“All of us are aware of the pressures our teachers and children are under to keep pace with the world’s students in science and math, but without a steep grounding in our history, what will rising generations have to pivot from? What will inspire them to remake their world with the confidence that comes from knowing it has been done before?”

Too often, debates over public education sidestep discussions of how schools can teach students not only to master Common Core standards, but also to be active, thoughtful, justice-driven members of society. Quoting civil rights historian Taylor Branch, the report offers one response: “If you’re trying to teach people to be citizens, teach them about the civil rights movement.”  Notably, Branch does not mention suspensions, high-stakes testing, or Teach for America as citizenship-building.  In the conclusion to Teaching the Movement, the report emphasizes just how high the stakes are: “When students learn about the civil rights movement, they learn about the democratic responsibility of individuals to oppose oppression and to work for justice. We gloss over the civil rights movement at our own peril as a nation working to achieve equal opportunities for all citizens.”

Meanwhile, as reformers lament a (non-existent) decline in test scores and wax nostalgic about the 1960s when American students “were so much smarter,” they obscure critical gains in public education access for students of color since the end of Jim Crow-era segregation and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision.  Even after Brown in the 1960s, Black students in the United States often still found themselves in segregated, woefully underfunded classrooms.  “At the same time,” the report notes, “the very school districts that Brown desegregated have now re-segregated”  While some charter schools have managed to raise test scores, they may contribute to the resegregation of public schools, while also pushing out ELLs, students with disabilities, and others.

Ultimately, our failure to prioritize civil rights education in American classrooms is not an isolated problem.  Rather, it reflects a much broader and arguably misguided discussion about what constitutes racial justice within public education.  We talk endlessly about the “achievement gap,” but we do far less to fight back against efforts to ban ethnic studies in Arizona and elsewhere.  Many charter schools—the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) being the most well-known—place a heavy emphasis on character development and strict discipline policies. But as we debate discipline and “zero tolerance,” we neglect the shoddy teaching of the Civil Rights Movement and other substantive discussions of curriculum.  In doing so, we fail to make schools critical sites of intervention against a history of oppression and injustice, prioritizing “grit” and “zero tolerance” over the too often hidden histories of people resisting, dreaming, and building toward a better future.

Beyond Bullying: Equally Excellent Education for All?

The 2014 Creating Change Conference was held in Houston, Texas on January 29 – February 2 and included several panels led by staff and fellows of Political Research Associates.  The following is a summary of my portion of the panel titled “Beyond Bullying:  Equally Excellent Education for All?” 

LGBT students face challenges in our public school systems, but the current wave of school privatization efforts across the nation threaten to further exclude and stigmatize LGBT students and teachers.

State legislatures across the country have introduced and passed “private school choice” bills that allow for public funds to finance private school education.  This includes  school vouchers and various tax credit programs.  Political Research Associates’ Public Eye magazine featured an extensive article in 2012 on the history and organization of the pro-privatization movement.  One way to track the progress of the movement is through the annual update of the leading pro-privatization nonprofits – the tax affiliated partners  Alliance for School Choice and the American Federation for Children.  Their annual yearbook tracks their successes in promoting the public funding of private school education, much of which takes place in religious schools.

The impact of this privatization of public education on LGBT students and teachers is both immediate and long term.  The immediate results is the public financing of private schools with exclusion policies that refuse admission to LGBT students.  A report by the Southern Education Foundation, for example, documents at least 115 private schools in Georgia’s tax-funded scholarship program with “explicit, severe anti-gay policies.”  This is not limited to Georgia or to the South.  These exclusion policies can be found in private schools around the country receiving public funding through school choice programs.

The longterm impact includes the further stigmatization of LGBT students, staff, and teachers through the public funding of schools using curricula in which homosexuality is described as “evil.”  For example, a teacher’s guide to one high school government textbook instructs teachers to instruct students that, “Homosexual unions must be opposed because God opposes them.”

Some of the most popular curricula series used in private religious schools across the nation, including A Beka Books and Bob Jones University Press, also teach young earth creationism, bigotry toward other religions, revisionist history and climate change denial. Recent reports are documenting the spread of this type of curricula in charter schools, which technically remain in the public education system although they are privately managed.

Scroll through the presentation below, or download the pdf.

Rachel Tabachnick Creating Change Presentation, 2014

Review – Home is Where the School Is: The Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering

Intensive Mothering
Home is Where the School is: the Logic of Homeschooling and the Emotional Labor of Mothering – By Jennifer Lois. Reviewed by Rachel Tabachnik

**Note: This review originally appeared in Women’s Review of Books, Vol. 30, No. 6, November/December 2013. Republished with permission.

Home is where the school isThe number of children homeschooled in the United States was estimated in 2007 to be at least 1.5 million and is likely more than two million today—more than three percent of the school-age population. Exact figures are unknown, since data collection varies by state. Nearly one quarter of states have no requirement for registration or notification and, according to the International Center for Home Education Research, ICHER, only half of the states have any requirements for testing or student evaluation. What is known, and has been shown repeatedly in research on the topic, writes Jennifer Lois, the author of Home Is Where the School Is, is that homeschooling is a mother’s project.

Mothers overwhelmingly bear the burden of the “immense emotional, temporal, and physical workloads required to homeschool,” Lois explains. This, she devotes her ethnography to these mothers, bypassing the more commonly researched homeschooled students. In her unique study, she examines the emotional lives of the mother-teachers and what she describes as a mothering experience fraught with “temporal-emotional conflict.” Homeschooling, she says, has the potential, particularly when fathers fail to share the load, to “ratchet up the standards for intensive mothering to historically unprecedented levels.”

The “ideology of intensive mothering” is a term coined by sociologist Sharon Hays in her 1996 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (1996). Hays identifies the paradox of the escalation of cultural norms of good mothering simultaneous with the influx of the mothers of young children into the workforce. “Good mothering” as defined in contemporary culture, writes Hays, requires a woman to play dual roles: she must be warm and nurturing at home, yet cool and competitive at work. Homeschooling mothers face a different set of challenges, including having little or no discretionary or childfree time, while bearing the responsibility for the education of one and sometimes many children. Referencing Hays’s research, Lois examines the homeschooling subculture and the sacrificial version of intensive mothering that requires women to “achieve near self-obliteration for their children.”

The book is the culmination of years of field research on homeschooling by Lois, an associate professor of sociology at Western Washington University, that included extensive interviews with homeschooling mothers and, in some cases, husbands or other family members. The original interviews of 24 mothers took place in 2002; these were followed in 2008 and 2009 by interviews with sixteen of the original interviewees. Of Lois’s 24 original interviewees, 21 were white, two were Hispanic American, and one was African American. One was a single mother, and one was a widowed grandmother. Lois describes 21 of the mothers as “identified with a Christian-based religion” and fourteen as highly conservative evangelicals. The numbers of children in their families ranged from one to twelve. Lois describes homeschooling as a class issue from both above and below. It is largely limited to middle-class families who can afford to have one parent remain out of the work force, but it is also a choice made by families who cannot afford private school tuition.

The most thoroughly studied aspect of homeschooling is motivation. The subculture is usually described as consisting mostly of those labeled by some researchers as ideologues and pedagogues, who are often stereotypes as religious zealots, alone with a smaller group of left-wing “unschoolers.” Although the majority of homeschoolers may indeed fit into one of these two categories, the most prominent homeschooling organizations certainly do, homeschoolers also comprise a wide range of religious adherents and nontheists who choose to homeschool for a variety of reasons. Lois’s interviewees, for example, include the mother of an academically gifted son with Asperger’s disorder who was not succeeding in a conventional classroom. Although Lois objects to simplistic stereotypes, she too divides her interviewees into two broad camps, albeit with different labels: “first choicers,” or mothers who are determined to homeschool their children; and “second choicers,” or those who homeschool because of a lack of acceptable alternatives. Lois is interested in discovering how the women chose to homeschool; how they defend their choice in the face of criticism; how they manage the workload and emotional demands; and how they deal with burnout.

She entered her research with little knowledge of religion or of conservative religious culture, admitting that she had to look up the significance of the Bible verse John 3:16 after seeing it on a mother’s tee-shirt (The verse says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”) This was a handicap to understanding both the majority of the mothers in her sample, who self-identified as conservative evangelicals, and the minority who self-identified as religious progressives. As a researcher who has written about homeschooling curricula and the role of religious organizations in the promotion of school vouchers and the privatization of education, I would have been interested in the responses that Lois could have elicited if she had been more religiously literate.

Her lack of exposure to religious communities may have contributed to the assumption she makes that homeschooling mothers must defend themselves from stigmatization and accusations of “emotional deviance” by mainstream society. In 2002, many of the homeschoolers she interviewed were defensive about their roles. However, with the dramatic growth in homeschooling over the last decade, the dynamics of peer pressure may have been reversed, with the stigma directed towards those who send their children to public schools. It’s easy to imagine this taking place, particularly in some religious communities, which are hubs of homeschool participation. If so, the decision to homeschool may be less a matter of challenging peer expectations and more about fulfilling them—presenting mothers with a different set of emotional challenges from those faced by Lois’s early interviewees.

Despite Lois’s limited ability to speak the language of her religious interviewees, her book opens a window onto the lives of homeschooling mothers. Throughout her observations, she explores differences between first and second choicers’ responses to challenges. The first choicers generally approach homeschooling as a calling; several describe a moment of ephipany or a sudden realization that God wanted them to homeschool. The second choicers were more ambivalent and continuously struggled with their decision. They were more likely to homeschool only one of their children and to make attempts to return to conventional schools. Lois sums up the difference, writing, “[C]hoices can be wrong; knowing is infallible.”

Most of the mothers had no precious teaching experience. In Washington state, where Lois did her research, the law requires a homeschooling parent to meet only one of the following guidelines: complete one year of college; attend a fifteen-hour homeschooling course; or meet with a state-certified teacher for an hour each week. The mothers’ lack of experience leads to an almost universal fear of failure, intensified for those new to homeschooling. Lois’s research included attendance at conferences, including a session at one statewide convention on Total Failure Syndrome, or the fear of failure in all areas—as mother, teacher, and wife. The speaker recommended that the mothers suppress problematic emotions and feelings of deprivation by comparing themselves to those less fortunate. “Do it with a servant’s attitude and a joyful heart,” she suggested , and celebrate the subordinate position. “Homeschooling subculture relentlessly pushed mothers to sacrifice more,” writes Lois.

Margaret Talbot, in her 2001 Atlantic review of Mitchell Steven’s Kingdom of Children: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement (2001), describes homeschooling as “souped up domesticity with higher stakes and more respect.” Referring to the rejection by homeschooling mothers of the “idealized domesticity” of the 1950s, Stevens claims that although homeschooling may appear to be reactionary and antifeminist, it actually “bears clear imprints of the liberal feminism that was blossoming when many of today’s homeschooling mothers came of age.” Lois found that many of the mothers in her study dealt with their overwhelming workloads by prioritizing mothering over housework. Her interviewees—from those in patriarchal settings to the self-described nonreligious, left-wing moms—shared an almost universal complaint: they were disappointed in their husbands’ lack of participation.

If feminism has made an imprint on homeschooling, it has no resulted in gender equality in the area of household chores and childcare—at least not for the subjects of this study and others. Lois’s interviewees report that their husbands, including those who insist on having their children homeschooled, do little to help relieve mothers of their workloads or to provide them with discretionary time. First and second choicers generally responded differently to their disappointment, however: the first choicers felt they had to protect the fathers’ free time and invalidated their own claims to “me-time”; while second choicers generally had greater expectations concerning their husbands’ participation and felt resentful when these were not fulfilled.

Readers expecting Lois to tackle the controversies over homeschooling’s role in American society will be disappointed, at least if they don’t read the endnotes. There, she debunks widely publicized claims that studies show homeschool students outperforming their public school counterparts on achievement tests. As she explains, the subjects of these studies are self-selected volunteers, who do not represent a full range of homeschooled students. Families holding the most antigovernment beliefs, for example, usually do not agree to participate in studies. In addition (although Lois does not mention it), the achievement test cited in these studies can be administered at home. As ICHER notes, “Not surprisingly, wealthy homeschoolers from stable two-parent families who take tests administered by their parents in the comfort of their own homes outscore the average public school child by large margins.”

Despite the overwhelming workload and the obstacles, most of Lois’s interviewees reported that they were happy to have homeschooled and would continue homeschooling. When Lois looks at outcomes, she measures the emotional responses of the mothers rather than the more-often measured achievements of the students. Again, she looks at the differences between the first and second choicers. When their children “graduated” from homeschooling, the second choicers were excited about entering the next phase of their lives, while first choicers were anxious to extend their experience of intensive mothering. Several reported putting their family planning “in God’s hands,” and three of the mothers, all first choicers, gave birth between Lois’s first and second round of interviews. Another mother, 41 years old and with three boys, reported that she wanted to make herself “open to life” and to have surgery to reverse her tubal ligation.

On the ICHER blog, the organization’s co-founder Milton Gaither, an academic and a homeschooling father, describes Home Is Where the School Is as “the most extensive look at the mothers who homeschool ever published.” It may do little to alter readers’ perceptions of homeschooling, whatever they may be, but in studying the mothers behind this growing trend, it id an invaluable addition to the sociological record.

Creationists Get Influential Positions in Texas Science Textbook Review

This post originally published at TFN Insider.

It looks like the Lone Star State’s reputation as a hotbed of anti-science fanaticism is about to be reinforced. At least six creationists/”intelligent design” proponents succeeded in getting invited to review high school biology textbooks that publishers have submitted for adoption in Texas this year. The State Board of Education (SBOE) will decide in November which textbooks to approve. Those textbooks could be in the state’s public school science classrooms for nearly a decade.

Among the six creationist reviewers are some of the nation’s leading opponents of teaching students that evolution is established, mainstream science and is overwhelmingly supported by well over a century of research. Creationists on the SBOE nominated those six plus five others also invited by the Texas Education Agency to serve on the biology review teams. We have been unable to determine what those other five reviewers think about evolution.

Although 28 individuals got invites to review the proposed new biology textbooks this year, only about a dozen have shown up in Austin this week for the critical final phase of that review. That relatively small overall number of reviewers could give creationists even stronger influence over textbook content. In fact, publishers are making changes to their textbooks based on objections they hear from the review panelists. And that’s happening essentially behind closed doors because the public isn’t able to monitor discussions among the review panelists themselves or between panelists and publishers. The public won’t know about publishers’ changes (or the names of all the review panelists who are in Austin this week) until probably September. Alarm bells are ringing.

Following are the six creationists/evolution critics we have identified so far on the biology review teams:

The Revisionaries: Documentary Goes Inside Texas Textbook Controversy

Texas Board chair Don McLeroy in The Revisionaries.

Texas Board chair Don McLeroy. The Revisionaries.

From 2009 to 2010, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) set about the once-a-decade task of writing curriculum standards for Texas’ almost five million school children. Claiming that “Academia is skewed too far to the left,” right-wing Board members voted to undermine the teaching of evolution and rewrite history from a Christian nationalist perspective.

The Revisionaries, a documentary available from PBS for online viewing through February 27, follows the Texas Board during this controversial process with nationwide repercussions: because their curriculum standards serve as guidelines for textbook publishers competing for the massive Texas market, decisions made in the Lone Star State can impact education across the country.

Filmed over a period of three years, the documentary focuses on three major figures: Board chair and self-described creationist Don McLeroy; Kathy Miller, head of the Texas Freedom Network, the “state’s watchdog” monitoring the Christian Right; and Ron Wetherington, an anthropologist specializing in evolutionary theory who reviewed the proposed science curricula. The Board’s other anti-evolution advocates included Cynthia Dunbar, who commuted from her Texas home to teach at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Virginia. Read More

Arizona Proposes Loyalty Oath, Creationism for Students

After the controversy surrounding Arizona’s S.B. 1070 immigration law and recent legislation banning abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, I’ve grown accustomed to controversial legislation from my home state. This month, the Arizona legislature is proposing a trio of laws that were declared unconstitutional decades ago.

The first “patriotic”  bill, H.R. 2467, would require high school students to recite an oath of loyalty to the United States—actually only a slight variation on elected officials’ oath of office—before being allowed to graduate from a public high school. The second, H.R. 2284, would require students in grades 1 through 12 to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a specific time each day, exempt only at the request of a parent.

ACLU Arizona’s public policy director Anjali Abraham was quick to dismiss these bills: “Both bills are clearly unconstitutional, ironically enough…You can’t require students to attend school … and then require them to either pledge allegiance to the flag or swear this loyalty oath in order to graduate. It’s a violation of the First Amendment.” Even so, the sponsors of both bills stand by their assertion that the bills will benefit children by helping them think more about the Constitution and their patriotic duty. (In all fairness, if a child’s school is sued for First Amendment violations, that could be true.)

A third bill, SB 1213, purports to encourage the development of “critical thinking skills” by requiring that educators teach multiple sides of “scientific controversies” such as the origins of life and global warming. Translation: Teachers can and should teach creationism and other religious theories as on par with evolution and scientific research. Although the bill takes pains not to endorse any specific religious doctrine over another, it also makes it more difficult for administrators to prevent teachers from doing so. Read More

The Right’s “School Choice” Scheme

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, left, makes a point as Kathleen Oropeza, the Orlando mother who helped create the Fund Education Now group, listens

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Kathleen Oropeza, the Orlando mother who helped create Fund Education Now, during the Florida Forward education reform forum hosted by the Orlando Sentinel, September 20, 2011. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images.

In June 1995, the economist Milton Friedman wrote an article for the Washington Post promoting the use of public education funds for private schools as a way to transfer the nation’s public school systems to the private sector. “Vouchers,” he wrote, “are not an end in themselves; they are a means to make a transition from a government to a market system.” The article was republished by “free market” think tanks, including the Cato Institute and the Hoover Institution, with the title “Public Schools: Make Them Private.”1

While Friedman has promoted vouchers for decades, most famously in his masterwork Free to Choose, the story of how public funds are actually being transferred to private, often religious, schools is a study in the ability of a few wealthy families, along with a network of right-wing think tanks, to create one of the most successful “astroturf” campaigns money could buy.2 Rather than openly championing dismantling the public school system, they promote bringing market incentives and competition into education as a way to fix failing schools, particularly in low-income Black and Latino communities. Read More

Report in Review: The Right’s Privatization Mission

Profiting from Public Dollars: How ALEC and Its Members Promote Privatization of Government Services and Assets
In The Public Interest, Washington, D.C., September 2012. http://www.inthepublicinterest.org/blog/new-report-profiting-public-dollars

This report documents the role of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in state legislative bills to privatize vital public services, with the aim of helping activists fight back.

Using case studies on education, health care, and prisons, the report shows how ALEC produces “model” bills that benefit its member corporations, which pay fees ranging from $7,000 to $25,000 to join. ALEC also acts as matchmaker, creating opportunities for the companies to woo and influence the conservative state lawmakers who are also members and submit the bills for votes back home.

The report walks readers through ALEC’s Virtual Public School model bill from conceptualization to birth. In 2005, representatives from K12 Inc. and Connections Academy–the virtual education industry’s two largest companies–collaborated with state legislators in ALEC on bills allowing states to contract with private companies to offer virtual education as an alternative to public schools. Since then, ALEC members have sponsored this “model bill” in Mississippi, Maine, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Texas. In all of the states but Massachusetts, this bill became law. The virtual education market is projected to grow by 43 percent between 2010 and 2015, and private companies can expect to reap enormous profits if states delegate this service to them. ALEC has already opened opportunities for corporations to capture a large share of this market and promoted other legislation to open schools as target markets for partner industries such as beverages and snack foods. Read More

From Schoolhouse to Statehouse

Curriculum from a Christian Nationalist Worldview

Students rally at a State Board of Education meeting, Austin, Texas,March 10, 2010

On May 21, Texas School Board member Cynthia Dunbar opened the board’s meeting with an invocation: “Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England, or the charter of Massachusetts Bay, or the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut, the same objective is present—a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”1 The board then voted nine to five, along party lines, to adopt new standards that will be used to teach the state’s 4.8 million students—resisting the pleas of educators, historians, and even Rod Paige, a former U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush. The new standards emphasize the role of Christianity in U.S. history and promote conservative values. A New York Times editorial pointed out that the Texas board did back down on a few of its “most outrageous efforts”—such as renaming the slave trade, the “Atlantic triangular trade”—but it nevertheless managed “to justify injecting more religion into government.” According to the Times, the curriculum differentiates between the Founders’ protection of religious freedom and “separation of church and state,”2 which it deplores.

Read More

Abstaining from the Truth

Sex Education as Ideology

chamberlain-abstain-300x216The Osseo Public School District is in most ways a typical Minnesota suburban system: three high schools, scores of athletic teams, and a graduation rate of 94 percent. But for the past ten years, it has run a dual-track curriculum in sexuality education. Students can choose between an abstinence-only health class and a comprehensive sexuality education class—the result of a prolonged, and expensive, debate among community members of the district’s human sexuality curriculum advisory committee.

While ending in a “compromise” of maintaining two separate classes that cost over $100,000 for abstinence textbooks and curriculum planning, the debate resulted in a school board decision that defined sex as something that happens between a husband and wife.1 The split in Osseo is emblematic of the national stand-off on how the subject should be taught.

Sexuality education has become a skirmish in the culture wars, and the minefield is public education. It is no coincidence that the struggle happens in schools. Public education has long been recognized as a major tool in imparting more or less universally accepted societal values such as hard work and civic engagement, but it also sparks debates over the value of competition, individualism, and unquestioned patriotism. Because schools define what knowledge is useful for the populace, the arena of schools is the locale for “ideological management,” according to educational philosopher Joel Spring.2

Struggles over what should be taught and who gets to learn it are as old as public schools. Teaching the German language was prohibited in schools during World War I. Conservative activists Mel and Norma Gabler were famous for five decades beginning in the 1960s as their homegrown Education Research Analysts group deeply influenced the content of Texas textbooks. Controversy over the constitutionality of school prayer was heightened in the 1950s and early’60s as proponents sought to protect the country from godless communism. Recent debates over evolution, bilingual education, the celebration of multiculturalism, the teaching of Arabic, and LGBT rights all reflect controversies about appropriate topics, activities, and services in public schools.

Sexuality education has become a skirmish in the culture wars, and the minefield is public education

With the emergence of HIV/AIDS, concerns about teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), health and family life education classes have been scrutinized by forces wanting to insert their perspectives into the curriculum. The battle over sexuality education has settled into two polarized camps, much like Osseo’s classes. Sexuality education is just one link in a long line of power struggles over who determines what is taught; the opposing frames in this case are public health and conservative values.

There is widespread agreement that teaching adolescents, especially younger teens, to postpone sexual intercourse is a good idea, but what that teaching entails is controversial. Abstinence-only education advises students to abstain from all pre- or extra-marital sex and deliberately omits factual information on such topics as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. A favorite theme is the unreliability, and resulting danger, of condoms. Comprehensive sexuality education, on the other hand, includes education on abstinence but emphasizes that if a person is sexually active, they need knowledge and skills about a wide range of topics, including contraception and abortion, to make informed decisions and stay healthy. Many abstinence-only education supporters occasionally call their approach “abstinence-until-marriage” education and brand comprehensive sexuality education as “condom-based” or “pro-sex.”

Although there is scant evidence showing the effectiveness of abstinence-only education over time, the federal government has spent over $1.5 billion on the strategy.3 This sum supports three annual multi-million-dollar federal grant programs, grantees, and a lobbying infrastructure that works hard on Capitol Hill. Although a majority of states refuse to accept what has come to be called “abstinence-only money” and have opted out of the state-based grant program, this development has apparently only served to stir the resolve of abstinence-only supporters and their backlash campaigns.4

Responding to the demands of abstinence-only lobbyists, the federal government enacted its own eight-point definition of abstinence education which mandates the design for all federally funded abstinence-only programs. One point defines abstinence as a program that “teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children.”5 Yet in an era when 95 percent of Americans engage in pre-marital sex,6 promoting abstinence as an educational goal seems unrealistic. Further, abstinence-only ideology ignores the reality of LGBT sexuality, including the estimated three-to-five percent of high schools students who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.7 Materials advance gender stereotypes of men’s rampant, uncontrollable sex drive, which purportedly must be kept in check by women’s adherence to their natural chastity and purity.8 A disturbing amount of “blame the victim” mentality appears in abstinence-only curricula, which relieves men of the responsibility for acting upon their “natural urges,” even violently, and puts the onus on women and girls to “wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.”

Nevertheless, abstinence education supporters are on a mission to reduce sexual activity not only for school-aged students but for unmarried adults as well. In 2006, they successfully lobbied to extend the target age range of funded programs beyond adolescents to age 29. In hearing the news of the revised guidelines, James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that supports comprehensive sexuality education, said,

They’ve stepped over the line of common sense….To be preaching abstinence when 90 percent of people are having sex is in essence to lose touch with reality. It’s an ideological campaign. It has nothing to do with public health.9

Why Do They Think That Way?

The spokespeople for abstinence-only education represent a core constituency that sees sexuality through a very conservative religious lens. Reacting against what they see as the degradation of culture by modern values, conservative Protestant evangelicals seek the codification of strictly traditional values as they read them in scripture. To these fundamentalists, a literal reading of the Bible is sufficient to learn how to act responsibly in all areas of life.

They are joined by conservative Roman Catholics in the belief that sexual behavior is defined as fidelity in heterosexual marriage, and any veering from that path is considered sinful. Such sin results in the ultimate punishment, separating the believer from God, or damnation. So for fundamentalist Protestants, it is not only necessary to avoid such a fate oneself; preventing others, especially children, from committing sexual sins is an act of compassion and responsibility that will save them, too, from eternal hell. This is for them the essence of evangelizing the Good News. Hence the belief that it is not only acceptable, but necessary, to set standards in public education that conform to these beliefs. Add to this the idea that parents have a special obligation to protect their own children from eternal harm, and you have a style that is recognizable in its stridency and self-righteousness.

These fundamentalists and others who are mobilized to political action, the Christian Right, are about 15 percent of voting public. This group of Christians wields greater power than its size might suggest. It can make or break elections in certain key districts by getting out the vote. But in the case of abstinence-only education, strategists have made certain key choices that have extended the appeal of their message far beyond their core.

Although there is scant evidence of the effectiveness of abstinence-only education over time, the federal government has spent over $1.5 billion on the strategy.

Abstinence-only framers talk in coded language that appeals to their conservative base plus resonates with a wider swath of evangelical Christians. When churches sponsor an alternative to the school prom called the “Purity Ball,” they can trigger a reaction to how American culture has sexualized the rituals of adolescence. Social conservatives who are uncomfortable with the fast pace of modern life can be attracted to the concept. A spokesperson recommending True Love Waits, the Southern Baptist Convention’s abstinence education program, reminds parents, “The world is coming after our middle schoolers like never before. As parents we must equip them to become lights in a dark world.”10 A real coup is getting the President to use coded words like “culture of life” and references to abstinence in the same sentence, as Bush did in 2007, speaking before the Southern Baptist Convention:

I believe building a culture of life in our country also means promoting adoption and teaching teen abstinence, funding crisis pregnancy programs and supporting the work of faith-based groups.11

This approach to sexuality education can have appeal among an even larger group of people, those who may base their political opinions on nonreligious principles. They might harbor a mild distrust of how government spends their money. After all, public education is the largest program financed mainly by local taxation. They may be disappointed with reports about the state of public schools and the lackluster results of the latest federal push for educational reform, the No Child Left Behind Act. And they would be persuaded by secular arguments based on reason and scientific evidence of the need to intervene in a public health crisis such as high rates of teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Abstinence-only education advocates have deployed this scientific sounding approach for over twenty years.

Borrowing a Public Health Frame

Despite the fact that abstinence-only education is rooted in conservative religious principles, many of the arguments abstinence-only educators use with the general public are secular ones that appear to use logic and scientific principles. Mary Beth Bonacci, chastity educator and founder of an abstinence promotion website Real Love Incorporated, refers to a flawed study by Dr. Susan Weller rejected by the Department of Health and Human Services in 1993 when she states,

The AMA Journal did a study using condoms—30 percent failure rate in preventing AIDS transmission. You’d say, “70 percent were safe, that’s not bad.” But is it safe when death is the option? Would you fly an airline that had only a 30 percent failure rate?12

Choosing the Best is a set of abstinence education curricula for grades seven through twelve that meets federal guidelines for abstinence-only funding. Choosing the Best PATH, for grade seven, also focuses on alleged condom unreliability:

Couples who use condoms for birth control experience a first-year failure rate of about 15 percent in preventing pregnancies. This means that over a period of five years, there could be a 50 percent chance or higher of getting pregnant with condoms used as birth control.13

Of course the “failure” rate is due to inconsistent condom use, a common result of inadequate training, rather than to the average two percent condom breakage rate. In addition, the statement calculates probability incorrectly, resulting in a highly misleading—but scientific sounding— message.

Some programs use fear to motivate students to promote abstinence. A middle school student handbook from the FACTS program reads:

There are always risks associated with it [premarital sex], even dangerous, life-threatening risks such as HIV/AIDS. Using contraceptives does not change this for teenagers.14

Comprehensive sexuality education has successfully used the public health approach, which defines a health problem, identifies risk, and designs interventions based on the science of epidemiology. Since abstinence-only education often attempts to hide its ideological perspective, abstinence-only spokespeople will co-opt public health vocabulary in their rebuttals in order to sound “scientific.” In answering the question, “Is Choosing the Best medically accurate?” its promotional materials state,

Choosing the Best curricula contain facts gathered from the most reliable and current sources of information available, such as peer-reviewed, published journals and government agency publications.15

The Medical Institute for Sexual Health tries to legitimize the abstinence-only message in a medical framework. This organization was founded in 1992 by Joe McIlhaney, a gynecologist and social conservative who jumped on the early (and since disproven16) test results that condoms do not protect against HPV, human papillomavirus. A section of its website on HPV includes minimally accurate medical information but adds an abstinence message:

Am I safe if I always use a condom?
If you always use condoms for vaginal sex, you can cut your chance of getting HPV by about half. [Actually, it’s about a 70 percent reduction in risk compared to non-condom users. (author)] To date, there is no evidence that condoms reduce your chance of getting HPV during oral or anal sex.

What can I do to avoid getting infected?
Avoid sexual activity if you are single. Be faithful to one uninfected partner for the rest of your life. Already had sex? See a doctor and get checked out.17

As with other Christian Right campaigns, abstinence-only educators repeat unsubstantiated or misleading claims until they not only become a substitute for reality for the speakers but are accepted as facts by their audience. For instance, the condom industry and the government use scientific testing such as inflating and stretching condoms until they break. Those who oppose condom use on the grounds it would encourage sexual activity and act as a contraceptive argue that condoms are not reliable, using these tests or altered statistics as evidence. For over twenty years, abstinence-only educators have repeated the misleading claims that condoms are undependable, refining the basic message to respond to counter arguments from scientists and proponents of condom use. If sex can’t be “safe,” it must be dangerous, goes the argument.

The Measure of Success

Proponents of abstinence-only education would like to tout their success using the same methods that other public health prevention programs do, and they have tried their best to do so by promoting their own studies. But public health researchers have disputed the claims made in support of abstinence-only programs. Those claims of success have been generated mostly by a single evaluation company, The Institute for Research and Evaluation, run by Stan Weed, a Mormon researcher, out of his home. Weed has over 20 years experience working with faith-based interventions and abstinence education and has evaluated over 100 abstinence-only programs in thirty states. He is the major scholarly defender of abstinence-only education, so it is important to note that critics such as William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) have already debunked his studies:

Stan Weed… interviewed more than 500,000 teens, and studied more than 100 abstinence-only programs. Okay, it sounds impressive… until you learn that Weed has just one peer reviewed and published study in a refereed journal showing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs can have a modest impact among seventh graders in delaying sex.18

Abstinence education is a tool of ideological management that is now well established in American culture and social policy.

Contradicting Weed’s findings, a federally sponsored multiyear evaluation by Mathematica Policy Research demonstrated that abstinence-only programs did not have an effect on sexual abstinence of youth.19 Comprehensive sexuality education advocates see this report, released in April 2007, as a vindication of their efforts.

The scientific studies have not stopped the wave. Abstinence education is a tool of ideological management that is now well established in American culture and social policy. We can identify those elements that have helped to institutionalize the campaign. What began as isolated projects by individuals in the 1980s has grown into an elaborate network of people, places, and paraphernalia. Over 900 federally funded programs now exist,20 generating new and revised curricula, videos, and training materials, as well as supporting instructors, administrators and the organizations to house them.

The federally funded infrastructure includes parachurch ministries like Focus on the Family, crisis pregnancy centers, advocacy organizations like the Abstinence Clearinghouse, technical assistance centers for dealing with federal grants, and even a trade organization with a lobbying presence in Washington, the National Abstinence Education Association. While the level of federal funding for abstinence education has not reached that of another school-based prevention program, Drug Abuse Resistance Education or DARE, which hit the $1 billion per year mark in 2001,21 it has come a long way toward being institutionalized.

Federal funding for abstinence programs began with the passage of the American Family Life Act (AFLA) in 1981 granting a modest $4 million for “chastity” programs for teens, a response to family planning efforts to prevent teen pregnancies. With annual increases since 1997 and the establishment of two other grants programs, including sizable sums for community-based programs ($113 million in 2007), federal funding has totaled over $1.5 billion, financing a well-heeled abstinence education industry.22 Without this support, abstinence-only programs would not be as commonly used as they are today (in about 25 percent of schools, according to their supporters).

A Small Circle of Friends

The use of abstinence education has indeed increased over the past 25 years, not only as a direct consequence of federal funding but due also to friends in high places. When George W. Bush was running for President in 1999, he stated, “My administration will elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent goal.”23 He and others in Congress and in federal government positions have made good on that promise.

In 2007, The Nation ran an exposé of a small circle of friends and their sizable harvest of federal dollars through the abstinence-only funding streams at the federal level.24 In it, author Michael Reynolds chronicles how a single abstinence advocate, Raymond Ruddy, has spent millions of dollars supporting his favorite abstinence-only programs, crisis pregnancy centers, and other parachurch ministries, while simultaneously lobbying Washington to increase its flow of federal dollars to these same groups. His colleagues include Wade Horn, the influential marriage promotion advocate with the National Fatherhood Initiative and the Department of Health and Human Services. Their appointments in both the federal government and organizations close to Ruddy help keep what Reynolds calls the “faith-based feeding trough.”

A recipient of AFLA funds has been the Best Friends Foundation, a character and abstinence education program founded in 1987 by Elayne Bennett, wife of William Bennett, who was Secretary of Education at the time. Ms. Bennett’s success in fundraising in both the private and public domains is evidenced by Best Friends’ ability to continue to raise over $1 million a year in government grants and private help from individuals and the conservative Richard DeVos, William Simon, and Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundations.25 The founder of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, Joe McIlhaney, Jr., an evangelical gynecologist and board member of Best Friends, was appointed to key posts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as advisor to the Director and a member of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. The Institute received $250,000 as a special federal earmark grant in 2004 for its abstinence education research.

What Next?

Abstinence-only education will remain force, no matter what level of funding its programs receive because there are enough anxious parents, monied investors, and conservative evangelicals to continue to make grassroots demands on the schools. But support for abstinence-only programs will continue to be a viable political campaign only if its followers continue to be mobilized, and there are plenty of reasons why conservative strategists might want to do so.

Supporters tend to be more than single-issue voters, and clusters of followers are also anti-abortion, pro-marriage, or anti-gay, making them potentially responsive to one or more of these culture war issues. Socially conservative organizing is alive and well around these issues, with groups like the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and other energetic faith-based organizations maintaining their influence and energizing their base.

Keeping a conservative campaign on the defensive is not the same as a decisive victory over it.

In a recent move, The National Abstinence Education Association launched a new “parents” initiative, Parents For Truth, with a $1 million campaign in June 2008. It is the trade association’s public service announcement and signature-gathering campaign to discredit comprehensive sexuality education. Misusing information from an HIV/AIDS prevention curriculum about the relative risk of various behaviors for HIV transmission, designed for African American males 12-16, the group’s first video depicts a suburban mother of what looks to be a ten-year-old girl horrified at the content of her daughter’s health class.26

Finally, the policymaking infrastructure is in place. Members of the Pro-Life Caucus in Congress remain powerful enough to influence their Democratic colleagues on key legislative votes, even to influence liberals to support programs they disagree with. Abstinence-only’s infrastructure was further strengthened when curriculum designer and executive director of the Abstinence and Marriage Partnership, Scott Phelps, founded a D.C. lobbying group and trade association, the National Abstinence Education Association in 2006 with Valerie Huber as its Executive Director. This group has become the centralized voice of abstinence-only education: state-level coalitions of community-based groups, most of which are crisis pregnancy centers with abstinence-only programs, feed into the national organization and depend upon it for marketing the message of abstinence.

On the other side, groups like the 140- member National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education and its leadership at SIECUS have worked hard for years to counter the misleading claims of abstinence-only spokespeople, and their levelheaded influence must be acknowledged.

And in opposition to pro-abstinence education lobbyists, Rep. Barbara Lee (D- CA), Christopher Shays (R-CT), and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) have sponsored the Responsible Education for Life Act (REAL), which is intended to counter the Bush administration’s success in establishing abstinence-only education as the only federally sanctioned sexuality education. This would reflect the results of a 2004 poll that showed parents supporting comprehensive sexuality education, including 94 percent supporting teaching about contraception and pregnancy prevention.27 Hopes for passage of this bill remain high, although the current legislation has gone nowhere since March of 2007.

Other members of Congress, like the California Democrat Henry Waxman, have been leaders in criticizing federal support for abstinence-only education,28 and the first Congressional hearing on federal funding for such programs took place in April 2008. Abstinence advocate Stan Weed was the only witness identified by the Republican minority to defend the science of abstinence-only education. His testimony focused not on the success of abstinence-only programs but on the methodological limitations of evaluations of comprehensive sexuality education curricula. When he was accompanied by a lobbyist, Valerie Huber from the National Abstinence Education Association, rather than another researcher, he looked especially vulnerable.29

Along with a counteroffensive from a Democratic Congress, the campaign faces a loss of its federal leaders. Wade Horn, former assistant secretary at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, best known as the Bush administration’s architect of marriage promotion as a solution to poverty, was the administration’s chief supporter of abstinence-only education. He now works in the private sector for Deloitte.

In 2005, Karl Rove brought to HHS a fierce welfare reformer and anti-abortion and pro-abstinence official, Claude Allen, who targeted comprehensive sexuality education groups and arranged for Advocates for Youth, a premier progressive sexuality education organization, to be audited multiple times.30 Allen lasted just over a year, before being arrested for theft related to a petty fake refund scam of retailers.31

Leslee Unruh, head of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, was a teen mother herself and the founder of Alpha crisis pregnancy center in South Dakota. She spearheaded the 2006 campaign to ban all abortions in that state. However, according to William Smith, her shrill TV presence may have made her a liability for the abstinence-only cause.32

Despite these promising changes at the national level, abstinence-only education continues to be powered through strong support at the state level from state and local politicians, and abstinence-only coalitions marketing their perspective to parents and school personnel. Liberal strategies promoting state versions of the REAL Act, supporting well-informed, responsible teens through comprehensive sexuality education, are thus as vital as vigilance in the nation’s Capitol.

Keeping a conservative campaign on the defensive is not the same as a decisive victory over it. Every tactic used to support comprehensive sexuality education has so far been met with corresponding counter-tactics. Winning a battle in the culture wars takes more energy and resources than merely being in the right.

Read the sidebar, “Christian Right Pushes Abstinence-Only Education Internationally.”

End Notes

1 Sharon Lerner, “The Sex Ed Divide,” American Prospect, September 23, 2001.

Joel Spring, The American School: 1642-2004 (6th ed.) (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005).

“Abstinence Education: Efforts to Assess the Accuracy and Effectiveness of Federally Funded Programs,” Report to Congressional Requesters (Washington, D.C.: Government Accountability Office) October 2006; Christopher Trenholm, Barbara Devaney, Ken Forston, Lisa Quay, Justin Wheeler, and Melissa Clark, Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs (Princeton, N.J.: Mathematica Policy Research) April 2007; see National Abstinence Education Association at www.abstineneceassociation.org.

Kevin Freking, “States Turn Down U.S. Abstinence Education Grants,” Boston Globe, June 24, 2008.

Social Security Act §510 (b)(2) (codified at 42 U.S.C. §710 (b)(2).

Lawrence B. Finer, “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” Public Health Reports, 55 (January-February 2007), 73-78.

Most states do not keep records on adolescent sexual identity, but the CDC’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) is a reliable source of information. The pre-published results for the 2007 Massachusetts YRBS provides us with this estimate.

Julie Kay, with Ashley Jackson, Sex, Lies &Stereotypes: How Abstinence-Only Programs Harm Women and Girls (New York: Legal Momentum), January 2008

Sharon Jayson, “Abstinence Message Goes Beyond Teens,” USA Today, October 31, 2006, at http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-10-30-abstinence-message_x.htm.

10 Rachel Lovingood,“Something to Talk About,” True Love Waits, Southern Baptist Convention, www.lifeway.com/tlw/parents/lwt.asp

11 Tim Ellsworth, “Bush Thanks Southern Baptists,” Baptist Press, June 13, 2007.

12 Mary Beth Bonacci, “Excerpts from Vital Sign Ministries Chastity Events”. The CDC has stated, “Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.”

13 Choosing the Best PATH Leader Guide, p. 18, as quoted in “Abstinence-Only_until_Marriage Programs in Alabama,” (SIECUS: New York, 2008) 10.

14 Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS), Middle School Handbook (Portland, OR: Northwest Family Services, 2000) 50.

15 “Setting the Record Straight: About Abstinence Education and Choosing the Best.”

16 King K. Holmes, et al. “Effectiveness of Condoms in Preventing Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” Bulletin of the World Health Organization, (82) 6, June 2004.

17 “Fact Sheets for Teens: Human Papilloma Virus,” Medical Institute for Sexual Health.

18 William Smith, “Hearing Highlights Ab-Only Industry in Peril,” RH Reality Check Blog [Internet], April 30, 2008.

19 Christopher Trenholm et al, “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs,” Mathematica Policy Research, April 2007, http://www.mathematica-mpr.com / publications/PDFs/impactabstinence.pdf.

20 This is a claim on an abstinence-only website for Project Reality: http://wwwprojectreality.org/news/index.php?newsid=53.

21 Edward M. Shepard III, “The Economic Costs of D.A.R.E.,” Institute of Industrial Relations, Research paper #22, at http://www.reconsider.org/issues/ education/economic_costs_of_d.htm.

22 Marcela Howell and Marilyn Keefe, “The History of Abstinence-Only Funding,” (Washington, D.C.: Advocates for Youth, 2007).

23 George W. Bush. The True Goal of Education. [Speech at Gorham, NH, Tuesday, November 2, 1999].

24 Michael Reynolds, “The Abstinence Gluttons,” The Nation, June 18, 2007.

25 Best Friends Foundation 990 form, 2006; Media Transparency, “William E. Simon Foundation,” http://www.mediatransparency.org/recipientsoffunder.php?funderID=30; Jeff Sklansky, “D.C. Students Learn To Say ‘No’ to Sex; 75 Girls Graduate From Pilot Program,” Washington Post, June 4,1988, G3.

26 www.parentsfortruth.org/video/index.php? code=OHENL

27 Kaiser Family Foundation, National Public Radio, and Harvard University. Sex Education in America: General Public/Parents Survey. Menlo Park, CA: The Foundation, 2004.

28 “The Content of Federally-Funded Abstinence-Only Educational Programs,” report prepared for Rep. Henry Waxman and the United States House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform, December 2004.

29 William Smith, “Hearing Highlights Ab-Only Industry in Peril,” RH Reality Check, April 30, 2008.

30 Doug Ireland, “The Bush Theocracy,” LA Weekly, January 13, 2005, http://www.laweekly.com/news/news/ the-bush-theocracy/1059/.

31 Ernesto Londofio and Michael A. Fletcher, “Former Top Bush Aide Accused of Md. Thefts,” Washington Post, March 11, 2006.

32 Telephone conversation with the author, May 22, 2008.