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Sexuality Education Policy: Who Makes Decisions?

If you are going to work to support comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) in your community, it helps to understand all of the various agencies, elected officials, and school district staff who play a part in decisions about the sexuality education young people receive.

Below is a basic overview of organizations on the national, state, and local levels that impact sexuality education. Before beginning your advocacy efforts, you may have to do some additional research to determine which agencies and individuals make decisions in your community.

On The Federal Level
For the most part, the federal government does not have a direct role in local sexuality education. Instead it leaves such control to state and local bodies. However, because the federal government does control funding for many educational programs, it can influence programs in local schools and communities.

For example, the federal government currently provides funding for the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) and the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP), two programs that rely heavily on evidence-based interventions (EBIs). While these are not strictly CSE resources, they can support CSE. In addition, the federal government spends $55 million of funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs each year.  

Although the federal government cannot require or control the content of sexuality education that is not supported by federal funds, many states and communities see the availability of federal money as a stamp of approval for EBIs or AOUM approaches. In addition, the more recent support for EBIs and nearly three decades of investment in AOUM programs has drastically increased the number of EBI and AOUM curricula and materials that are available to schools and community-based programs. In this way the federal government has been very influential in affecting how sexuality education is delivered in local schools and communities. It is worth noting that there is no federal funding stream has ever been dedicated to supporting CSE.  

On The State Level
States are much more directly involved in decisions about sexuality education than the federal government. States can mandate that sexuality education be taught, require schools to teach about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV, set state-wide guidelines for topics, choose curricula, and approve textbooks. These decisions are made by a variety of agencies and elected officials whose titles and responsibilities differ by state. You can contact your state’s education agencies or your elected officials to find out more.

To find out if your state has course or content mandates, see SIECUS’ State Profiles for more information.

The State Legislature
The State Legislature can enact a mandate for sexuality education or STD/HIV prevention courses, but fewer than half of the states require that some form of sexuality education be taught in the schools. Instead, most states allow local school districts to decide whether to provide this type of education.

Some states set rules about the content of sexuality education or STD/HIV prevention courses. Whether or not a course mandate is in place, states can dictate content for those programs that schools choose to teach. For example, a number of states require all courses to “stress abstinence.”

Departments of Education and State Boards of Education
All states have one or more governing bodies that oversee schools and education policy. These agencies and boards vary by state in terms of authority and title. They may have several responsibilities, such as designing curricula, approving materials, and setting outcome objectives for courses. These bodies can also set policies that specifically dictate the type of sexuality education schools can provide

Local Level
The majority of decisions about education policy are made at the local level. Whether or not a state course or content mandate is in place, local administrators may establish their own mandates. These local mandates may expand upon but cannot violate state mandates. If a state mandates that schools provide information on contraception and STD prevention, for example, a local community cannot choose to implement an AOUM program that does not contain this information as its sole curriculum. In contrast, if a state prohibits schools from providing information contraception in favor of a strict AOUM message, schools cannot choose to include that information in their programs. It is important for local communities to review state requirements carefully. Some states provide leeway for local decisions, even within a mandate.

The School Board
In almost all communities, the school board is involved in decisions about sexuality education. Among other things, the school board sets district policy and approves curricula, textbooks, pamphlets, and videos. Typically, school board members are elected, so it is important to pay close attention to local elections. While some school board members have a strong background in education, others are often concerned community members with little experience in education and school administration.

The School Health Advisory Committee
Many districts have created special advisory committees to review the materials used in school health and sexuality education courses. Most often these committees make recommendations to the school board which the board can either accept or reject. The committee members are usually appointees or volunteers. Teachers, clergy, public health officials, parents, and students may serve on such advisory committees.

The Superintendent, Principal, District Curriculum Coordinator, and Staff
Although they do not set district policy, superintendents, principals, and other school administrators have some control over the content and methods used in their schools and classrooms. In the end, they are responsible for how policies on sexuality education are enforced.

Teachers
Teachers remain the only people within this hierarchy who have daily direct contact with students, and, as such, they are highly influential in decisions about curriculum, materials, activities, and classroom discussions.

For more information on the educational governing bodies in your state and how local school district decisions are made, the National School Boards Association (www.nsba.org) has additional resources.