Nearly 20 years ago, conservative state lawmakers returned a federal grant to pay for sex education in the K-12 system and installed a legal requirement that any statewide health standards would have to be pre-approved by the Ohio Legislature.
Two decades later, Ohio is the only state in the nation without health education standards to offer guidance on what children should learn about nutrition, drugs, mental health, sex and more and what skills they need to make healthy choices.
It’s not for lack of trying: multiple attempts by Democratic lawmakers to establish comprehensive sex education for Ohio’s 1.7 million public school children have been stymied.
The latest attempt — Senate Bill 121 sponsored by Democrat Vernon Sykes and Republican Stephanie Kunze — employs new strategies. First, it is bipartisan. Second, it would remove the requirement that the Legislature approve health standards, ceding that authority to the State Board of Education, but retain lawmaker approval for standards related to “venereal disease.”
“We wanted to keep sex education separate and apart from this, totally,” said Sykes, D-Akron. He said he anticipates amending the bill to clarify that lawmaker approval would still be required for sex education.
State Sen. Steve Huffman, R-Tipp City, suggested that there should be a similar exception in place for what might be taught about abortion.
Currently, what students learn about health and sex is determined by local school districts in Ohio.
The State Board of Education has adopted standards for all other subject areas, such as math, science and language arts.
The Senate Education Committee, headed by Kettering Republican Peggy Lehner, has heard from 63 witnesses so far: 31 opponents, 24 proponents and eight interested parties on SB121.
This week, Roundtable Freedom Forum lobbyist Melanie Elsey delivered a history lesson to senators about how and why Ohio pulled the plug on the federal grant in 1998 and installed the pre-approval requirement.
Elsey, an opponent of SB121, recounted how in 1998 she participated in educator training sessions funded by a Centers for Disease Control grant. Back then, lessons for middle and high school students included information on how to make condom use fun and how to protect against sexually transmitted diseases during oral sex.
“It would blow your mind in what the national experts think are a good idea for developmental ages. That’s why the oversight is needed,” she said.
The bill is supported by the teachers unions, children’s hospitals, Cleveland Clinic, Ohio School Counselors Association, Prevention Action Alliance and others. It is opposed by Mission America, Health Freedom Ohio and Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom and others.
Wright State University professor Kevin Lorson, who also represents the Ohio Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, said health education standards would help Ohioans deal with crises, including opioid addiction, suicide, vaping, and other problems.
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“If we expect people to be personally responsible for their health, it is essential that we effectively teach our students the skills to be healthy,” Lorson said in written testimony. “Ohio ranks in the lower quartile in almost every state health ranking, making it nearly impossible to justify the lack of state standards.”
Ohio ranks 37th for youth tobacco use and 49th for fatal drug overdoses, according to the Health Policy Institute of Ohio. Ohio ranks 37th for obesity rates, according to the CDC. And the Ohio Department of Health reported that between 2007 and 2018, suicide deaths among 10- to 24-year-olds increased 56 percent.
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Lorson said it doesn’t matter who comes up with the health standards — the Ohio General Assembly or the Department of Education — as long as guidance is provided. He also noted that local districts would still control what curriculum is used to teach students.
Senate President Larry Obhof, R-Medina, said Republican senators need to discuss the bill to determine if there enough votes to win approval.
“There has been some controversy around (the bill) from conservative advocates across the state so I’ll do a deeper dive into that,” he said.
The bill represents the latest political tussle at the Ohio Statehouse over sex education.
In 1999, the state adopted a law requiring local districts to stress that abstinence is the only sure-fire way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies.
In 2013, lawmakers considered an amendment to a state budget bill that would have explicitly prohibited teaching comprehensive sex education in public schools. Teachers and organizations that violated the ban would have faced possible lawsuits by parents and $5,000 fines. The amendment was defeated.