Romney Can’t Take His Mitts Off Human Relations Education

Romney Can’t Take His Mitts Off Human Relations Education

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has fired two salvos on sex education since July, attacking Democratic candidate Barack Obama for his support of age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education for elementary school children, then going after the broader Democratic field for not rejecting the inclusion of gay-related issues in sex education for second-graders.

“Not one candidate was uncomfortable with young children learning about same-sex marriage in the second grade,” Romney said on September 26. “This is a subject that should be left to parents, not public school teachers,” he said.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton shared Romney’s view, in my opinion, saying that it should be parental discretion to discuss same-sex marriage with young children. Clinton also favors civil unions over same-sex marriage; she might be aiming for consistency in her views on these two issues.

But would a second grader understand civil unions, or even care?

First, I wanted to find out if same-sex marriage is taught in states that offer sex education to second graders; Illinois, for instance, Senator Obama’s home state, does not mandate sex education before the sixth grade.

The Sexuality and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) provides guidelines for comprehensive sex education for grades K-12. These guidelines recommend introductory instruction on homosexuality and tolerance in the early elementary grades (ages 5 through 8) and that “two people of the same gender can live in loving, lifelong committed relationships.” No mention of marriage or civil unions; those are not the only such relationships.

So, SIECUS, the leading advocates for sex education instruction, advises teaching a bigger picture, knowing that same-sex couples cannot have legally recognized marriages in some states. They are not asking parents and children to lend political support for same-sex marriage. They are educators, not politicians. Sex education professionals rely on these guidelines; they were developed over 40 years ago, continually revised as science advanced and policies changed. Educators and parents must work together towards a successful sex education curriculum, not in an adversarial relationship. That view is shared by sex educators and those who historically oppose some units of sex education.

New Jersey, my home state, mandates sex education for all grades K through 12. Human relations and sexuality are one of six modules of a comprehensive health and physical education program. The Garden State mandates 150 minutes of health education per week for all students and has a graduation requirement of 3 ¾ credits per year for high school students. However, New Jersey law does not state how much time must be devoted to sex education, probably to allow educators flexibility to address a bigger health and fitness picture.

Does the Garden State suggest that second graders learn about same-sex marriage?

The answer: no, only that a second grader should be able identify different kinds of families and understand that families may differ for many reasons. There is no mention of same-sex relationships; that leaves such instruction in the hands of parents and teachers.

I wonder why Governor Romney keeps up the attack on sex education, when it’s essentially a non-issue in the presidential campaigns. Sex education policies, for better or worse, are ratified by state legislatures; national guidelines have almost no chance for passage by a highly partisan Congress.

If parents and teachers have been able to work together, must the President be involved?

There are numerous policies and practices among the states from comprehensive approaches, to abstinence is best to abstinence-only to abstinence until marriage. Governors, including New Jersey’s Jon Corzine, have refused money for abstinence-until-marriage instruction under federal guidelines; their medical accuracy and educational value has been put in question in academic circles, as well as political circles.

Romney says his Democratic opponents are out of touch with the American people on sex education. It’s Romney who is out of touch; the voters in every state have already told their governor and legislators, as well as their teachers and school boards, about the sex education they want—and they don’t want to lose the chance to change their minds.

I doubt they want Mitt Romney, or any other candidate who grabs the brass ring, to take that chance away from them.