Do parents have the right to determine what their children learn about moral matters in public schools? In Colorado, where a controversial sexual education bill is set to land on the governor’s desk, the answer to that question is far from clear.
Colorado already has so-called comprehensive sexual education, meaning that concepts including safe contraceptive use, LGBT sex, and information about sexually-transmitted diseases are built into its curriculum. But the new bill goes further: it forbids students and teachers from discussing their religious beliefs about sexuality in the classroom, strips the option teachers previously had to emphasize abstinence alongside medical information and requires them to discuss abortion, and does away with a provision that allowed some schools to voluntarily opt out of the state’s curriculum. It also demands that issues of sexual consent be taught to children as young as elementary-school age.
In fact, the bill’s requirements seem tailor-made to fit a sex-ed curriculum that’s already available for use: Planned Parenthood’s.
The bill refers to its curriculum content as “objective,” and “unbiased,” but this is a fantasy. The reality is that Americans are divided about all kinds of moral issues, from abortion and abstinence to non-sex related issues like interpretation of American history and literature selections. Education is not, and cannot be, value-neutral. In fact, moral and character formation are a critical component of any child’s education; the problem is that Americans don’t all agree on the morals they want to impart.
In a diverse society like ours, there’s only one fair way to adjudicate these kinds of cultural disputes in schools, and that’s by putting every family in the driver’s seat of their own child’s moral education. Parents, not state legislatures or education bureaucrats, should be the stewards of the public dollars allocated to educating their children, and able to direct them towards educational experiences that buttress the values taught around their dinner tables instead of conflicting with them.
American families already understand what education wonks, school administrative offices, and politicians refuse to admit: culture and moral instruction rank consistently among the most important factors parents cite in selecting a school for their child.
In Colorado, parental concerns about the sexual message being imparted to their children are being treated as illegitimate, as though only politicians should have a say in the moral upbringing of the state’s children. And Colorado is far from the only state considering such heavy-handed sexual education mandates. California already has a similar law in place, and states as different as Arizona and Massachusetts have similar proposals floating around their state capitols.
These bills are advanced under the banner of improving information for students about sexual health. The suggestion is that, under current law that allows schools to opt out, some students are left in the dark about how to avoid pregnancy or how to engage in healthy relationships, or that students with different sexual identities will be left out. But by leaving parents out of the equation, the new policy just advances discrimination of a different kind.
It’s fine that Americans don’t all agree about controversial social issues. But the system that we all fund with our tax dollars shouldn’t be picking winners and losers in the culture wars, and the idea that there’s a “unbiased option” is a myth. For a tolerant, small-l liberal society, the solution is empowering parents with school choice, and letting them take their education dollars to institutions that respect their wishes about what their own children learn in school about ethical matters.
Educational freedom, not biased state mandates telling families what their children will learn about sex and when they will learn it, will result in more harmony between neighbors with different beliefs.