Many people’s first instinct when reading about the guidelines on sex education in public schools is to consider whether they agree with the specifics of the proposal: Do I think that all eighth-graders should be familiar with emergency contraception and that fifth-graders should be able to define sexual harassment?  Those are among the recommendations in a new report that was released by a consortium of health and education groups, which is receiving criticism from others who believe that abstinence should be a larger focus of all sex-education courses.

Yet course content really isn’t — or shouldn’t be — the main question. The real question is who gets to make the decision about what sex-ed curriculum a child is exposed to? 

The problem with our current system isn’t that sex-ed classes lean too far in one direction or another.  It’s that most parents have little control over such decisions because their child is assigned to a public school and has few options other than to enroll their child in that school. If parents had more control over such decisions — for example, if they had control of the $10,000 that is, on average, spent on each child in a public K–12 school and could use that money to pay tuition at any school they want — then they could select a program that reflects their values.  

Sex-ed-curriculum decisions are mostly seen through a culture-war lens — are we going to emphasize the importance of abstinence or condom-use to the next generation? — but it’s a war that could be largely defused if we all agreed to disagree and let parents make decisions about what’s right for their children.