The California State Board of Education voted unanimously last week to approve a controversial new health curriculum framework for schools and health textbooks despite pushback from parents claiming the recommendations expose children to graphic, pornographic, and harmful information.
The framework, more than 700 pages long, will overhaul sexual education in the state’s public schools by setting new standards for health textbooks and for teachers who instruct students from kindergarten through 12th grade about everything from nutrition and substance abuse to sexual orientation and gender identity.
The board voted to approve the framework on May 8, about a year after the department first released a draft for public review. The state legislature mandated in 2015 that public and charter schools provide so-called comprehensive sexual health education that affirms different sexual orientations and teaches about gender identity and expression.
Advocates of the new framework celebrated the vote, claiming the recommendations will finally provide students with LGBT-inclusive and medically accurate information about sex and gender.
But many California parents disagree.
Last year, Orange County public school parent Stephanie Yates read the new framework and decided to start a Facebook group to inform parents about the material the framework would push into California classrooms. Today her group, Informed Parents of California, has nearly 25,000 members.
“It’s not a matter of parents not caring, it’s a matter of parents not knowing,” said Yates, who told me she passed out flyers about the group at gas stations, grocery stores, and school parking lots—anywhere she found someone who told her they had a student in a local public school.
She said parents she talks with assume sexual health education focuses on anatomy, puberty, and protection from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. They are shocked to learn it includes how-to guides for risky sexual behavior and instruction for children on how to give and receive sexual consent.
In an effort to point out the explicit nature of the recommendations leading up to last week’s vote, Informed Parents of California published a press release linking to pages from four specific books recommended and endorsed by the framework.
One book for kindergarten through third grade includes graphic, up-close illustrations of child and adult genitals as well as of sexual intercourse. Another tells children there are many genders to choose from and provides a list of 11 options, including “trans,” “genderqueer,” “third gender,” and “two-spirit.” A book for fourth to fifth grade boys lists slang words for female genitals and includes sections that normalize masturbation, sexual fantasies, and homosexual feelings. A book for high school students includes how-to sections on anal, oral, violent, and other deviant forms of sex.
“It’s downright sickening,” Yates said. “It’s dangerous. It’s reckless, and it will destroy our children’s physical, emotional, and mental health.”
On the day of the vote, a board member moved to drop the controversial books from the framework, arguing they had created a panic and distracted from the department’s education goals. “It’s important to know the board is not trying to ban books,” said Board of Education member Feliza Ortiz-Licon. “We’re not saying that the books are bad. But the removal will help avoid the misunderstanding that California is mandating the use of these books.”
After hearing from more than 200 individuals during a public comment period, the board voted unanimously by a voice vote to pass the health curriculum framework with the four specific books deleted.
But Informed Parents of California argues the books were simply illustrative of larger ideological problems with the entire document, which will now serve as a guide for textbook publishers as they create curriculum for California school districts.
Yates plans to pull her young son out of the public school system at the end of this school year, but said her fight against the framework is not over.
“I can pull my kid and be like, ‘I’m out of this battle,’” she said. “But that leaves cousins, friends, playground friends, baseball teammates still in the system. And future generations, what about my grandkids? What kind of life will my grandkids have?” She said parents who retreat to private schools or homeschooling without continuing to push back may soon find the state infringing on their parental rights in those environments: “If we just pull [our children] and take a step back, they’re going to take more ground.”
Informed Parents of California is holding a Sex Ed Sit Out on Friday to protest the health framework. Yates said parents in 40 of California’s 58 counties have committed to participate.