(VIDEO) California’s Sex Education Program: Ongoing Struggles Behind the Success Story

California’s sex education policies are the envy of most other states. California is alone in having never accepted Title V federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funds, and state laws require that sex education in schools and state-funded community programs be comprehensive and bias-free. California’s laws have served as models for other states and the federal Responsible Education About Life (REAL) Act legislation. Recently, the Guttmacher Institute praised California as being way out front in preventing unintended pregnancy among teens, in part because of the state’s embrace of comprehensive sex education.

California’s sex education law requires that instruction:

  • Be medically accurate, science-based and age-appropriate
  • Include thorough information about condoms and contraception, as well as information about how, when and why to delay sexual activity
  • Be free of bias based on gender, sexual orientation, and race or ethnicity
  • Be accessible to English learner students and students with disabilities
  • Teach skills for making healthy decisions

California’s policies have undeniably made a positive impact on sex education in the state. But, unfortunately, sex education advocates can’t dust off our hands and move on. Many California public schools are still providing abstinence-only-until marriage programs, in spite of policies that forbid them.

In the six years since the sex education law was enacted, I’ve talked with countless parents complaining that outside agencies are coming into their schools to teach students about purity, condom ineffectiveness, and how their lives will be ruined if they engage in sex outside of marriage. How is this possible? 

The gap between policy and practice in California reflects an ongoing challenge: implementation. In California, we have over 1,000 school districts and only one person at the California Department of Education who works on sex education. While the state does evaluate school districts for compliance with the law, its capacity is extremely limited: this year, only three districts have been reviewed. Without a powerful enforcement mechanism, school districts feel that they can ignore—or creatively misinterpret—the law with impunity.

Advocates for comprehensive sex education therefore can’t sit back and expect all school districts to implement the law on their own, or for the California Department of Education to force them to do it. To ensure that the instruction called for by law is actually presented to students, we need to keep working at the state level and in our communities.

While we still have our work cut out for us, California sex education advocates have made significant progress in leveraging the law to move school districts away from abstinence-only programs, through a combination of administrative advocacy, community organizing, and coalition building.

Getting State Agencies To Step Up

State agencies can seem like an impenetrable bureaucratic thicket, but finding a way through the thicket can be invaluable, since these agencies have extensive reach into local school districts and communities. They also play a key role in interpreting legislation and deciding how to incorporate it into their administrative processes, such as adopting state-approved textbooks, developing state standards for what students should learn, or establishing the criteria for grant programs.

If left to their own devices, most state agencies adopt a weak response to implementing comprehensive sex education. They see it as too controversial.  This is where the advocacy community can play a critical role. In California, we established relationships with key players, both public and private, and identified opportunities for strategic intervention. This approach has borne fruit in many ways:

  • California’s state superintendent sent a letter to all school districts specifying that abstinence-only education was not permitted in California public schools, and the Department of Education posted extensive information about the law on its website;
  • The California School Boards Association (CSBA) issued a more clear and robust model sex education policy for local school districts to adopt;
  • We successfully intervened in California’s adoption of standards for health education, insisting that the standards reflect the requirements of the sex education law and include clear messages regarding sexual orientation and condoms and contraception.
  • Since charter schools represent a growing segment of public schools in California, we partnered with the California Charter Schools Association to issue a statement in support of comprehensive sex education and educate their membership about California’s policies.

Taken together, these actions solidify and strengthen California’s embrace of comprehensive sex education. They also provide tools for local activists to use.

Engaging the Community

Many school districts simply won’t implement comprehensive sex education without being pressured by an organized group of parents, students and community members.

A case in point: As recently as 2008 here in the progressive Bay Area, the Fremont school district was using an agency that received federal Community Based Abstinence Education funds. The curriculum criticized unmarried couples who “mate” and have children, provided inaccurate information about condom effectiveness, and included anti-abortion bias.

The ACLU of Northern California and Bay Area Communities for Health Education (BACHE, a parent-founded organization that mobilizes other parents around sex education) began organizing local community members and launched an effort to replace the abstinence-only provider with comprehensive sex education. Using the law as leverage and relying on tools such as the CSBA model policy and the letter from the state Department of Education, Fremont parents, students, teachers and community members spoke at school board meetings, gained a majority on the district’s sex education oversight committee, and presented the district with a concrete list of problems and proposed solutions.

The Fremont school district had long been in the sway of a small group of ardent abstinence-only supporters, but faced with overwhelming community opposition to the abstinence-only-until-marriage program and the reality that it was breaking the law, the district changed course and adopted comprehensive sex education in both middle and high schools. The ACLU and BACHE are now teaming up on a similar effort in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. Watch a video featuring Renee Walker, the parent founder of BACHE, talking about the value of community-based work.

Organizing local communities is labor-intensive, but the rewards are great. School districts often hide behind perceived community opposition as a reason not to improve their sex education instruction. “This is a conservative community,” district officials will say. “People here won’t support teaching anything other than abstinence.” That argument is quickly deflated when they’re faced with a mobilized, representative cross-section of the community arguing persuasively about why they support comprehensive sex education and demanding accountability from their local schools.

Organizing also increases the chances that change will be sustainable over time, since the community is both invested in the outcome and still on site to monitor the situation and make sure no back-sliding occurs. Also, once community members connect with each other in support of comprehensive sex education, they can also turn their energy in support of other important causes. The Fremont group, for example, after having achieved their sex education victory over a year ago, have now re-energized to push the district to recognize Harvey Milk Day, recently adopted by the state to honor the gay rights leader.

The fact that community members in Fremont who organized in support of sex education are now fighting to recognize an LGBTQ civil rights day demonstrates a key truth about sex education: it stands at the intersection of many issues and can serve as a bridge between them.

In its most narrow conception, sex education advocacy is about implementing programs that prevent teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. But when approached from a reproductive justice perspective that recognizes all the factors that can negatively affect young people’s health—including racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, immigration status, and language barriers—the goal of sex education advocacy expands from preventing unintended  pregnancy and disease to promoting a holistic vision of well-being for young people. By connecting with parents’ deeply held desire for healthy children and healthy communities, this approach has the potential to bring together a much wider cross-section of the community, and to engage them on a wider range of issues.

Making Connections Across Communities

Back in 2002, when we were contemplating sex education legislation, the ACLU of Northern California and Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California brought together educators, researchers, policy advocates and community-based organizations to discuss problems with the sex education then being taught in schools, and to strategize policy solutions.

Now called the California Sex Education Roundtable, and additionally convened by California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, this group promotes networking, cross-fertilization of ideas, and collaborative action. For example, the Public Health Institute, a research organization, conducted a survey of California parents’ support for comprehensive sex education, the results of which were widely used by other Roundtable members in their local efforts. California Latinas for Reproductive Justice and Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice have created toolkits for working on sex education with the Latina/o and Asian communities, respectively, and have brought  the voices of communities of color into statewide administrative and legislative advocacy efforts.

By developing a network that informs work at both the state and local levels and includes the perspectives of members from a range of disciplines and contexts, the Sex Education Roundtable has played a key role in furthering sex education implementation in California.

In It to Win It

Before implementation comes into play, of course, a policy must be enacted. Many states are still struggling to achieve this goal.  But it’s worth remembering that policy change, while incredibly important, is only the first step.  Ahead lies the long road to policy implementation, which is challenging, creative and rewarding.  With a long-term commitment and creative advocacy rooted in the community, progress becomes not just necessary, but attainable.

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  • wildthing

    They need a real sex ed study and hands on learners permits with surrogates and special needs training with a graduated and individualized actualizaion process to be truly effective.

  • goatini

    Good article, much appreciated.  I lived in Fremont during the sex-ed issue.  I was horrified that the local school system was actually pushing an “abstinence” program – though not completely surprised as there is a fairly large Mormon community in the area, along with not a few fundie types of other stripes.  I was quite happy that the saner heads in the community organized and prevailed.


    Now as to getting Harvey Milk Day recognized in Fremont schools, that’s not going to be easy either.  Back in 2008, on my block alone there were two houses with pro-Prop (H)8 lawn signs.  There were several occasions when I would get harassed by local motorists in back of me, blaring horns, yelling out the window, and flashing their brights at me, due to my “Hate Is Not A Family Value” and other Anti-Prop H8 stickers in my rear window.  

  • faultroy

    I watched the video on the home page of this website and thought it pretty reasonable until I heard that the author was with the ACLU.  Then I began to get suspicious. You would think from the way this article was written that California has been in some sort of Sex Education Limbo.  However the statistics by the author’s own sources do not substantiate this.  The implication is that California has suffered some serious setbacks with the Abstinence Only Policy–at least according to the author.  If the author’s comments are accurate, then it would follow that California having been teaching Abstinence Only in its school system would have seen a spike in unwanted pregnancies right?  Of course! Since the author is making the case that Abstinence Only is a horrendous and dishonest form of sex ed.  But it is therefore even more odd that the Guttmacher Institute’s– which we all know is a pro feminist pro abortion advocacy group–own data comes to a totally opposite conclusion.  The Institute must in itself be very biased if they praise the ACLU’s position on California’s comprehensive sex ed policy when–again according to their own statistics–at least with reference to Teen Pregnancies,  things have been phenomenally successful up till their most recent pulished data which is 2005.  Furthermore, the author goes into a diatribe that California is breaking the law by allowing a certain minority to promote their own views(abstinence only)–but then clearly shows its own bigotry by dismissing the fact that the ACLU has its own agenda as well.  So, if the ACLU is so concerned about allowing the will of the people to be heard, why don’t they push to let the taxpayers in the individual school systems be heard rather than promoting an agenda that furthers the ACLU’s personal ideology?  I must make  one point perfectly clear: 1) Abstinence Only Sex Education, is the ONLY PROGRAM THAT WILL 100% GUARANTEE  STD AND AIDS FREE STUDENTS. The issue of course is whether that is enough.  The  author’s implication is that the schools are violating California Law.  Abstinence Only clearly conforms to one of  the dictates of the law.  To tell a student that any form of birth control including condoms will prevent STDs is clearly a violation of law since it has been proven scientifically inaccurate.  While I personally am not in favor of Abstinence Only Policy, I do want to highlight the fact that to say this policy has not been wildly successful is a categorical lie based on the statistical facts. The idea that California is requiring further sex ed in discussing condom use and other forms of contraception  is purely for political motivation and has nothing to do with the statistical reality of reducing teen pregnancy. Furthermore this article’s  political pandering is further supported by the author’s comment that  “…the Guttmacher Institute praised California as being way out front in preventing unintended pregnancy among teens, in part because of the state’s embrace of comprehensive sex education…”  When in reality–again according to their own statistics, this is just not true.  Many other states have done far better in preventing teen pregancy than California.  As a matter of fact, for all its efforts, it shows in the lower half of states’ efficacy in this matter.  Perhaps the Guttmacher Institute is using the same grading scale as is now fashionable in which no one does not get a star and everyone is a winner.!!!!   So now let’s get into the Guttmacher Institute’s report: The Jan, 2010 US Teen Pregnancy Report gives statistics on teen pregnancy and it clearly shows that since 1988 and all thru the Bush years in which they brought in Abstinence Only Education, Teen Pregnancy has been dropping dramatically.  Statistically, California has seen its Teen Pregnancy rate drop from a high of 154 (in 1988) to a current rate of  75 per 100,000 as of 2005.  That is over a 50% decline.  Again according the Institute, the abortion rate dropped from 76 per 100,000 in 1988 to 26 at year end 2005.  That is  almost a 300% reduction of pregancies per 100,000 teens.  If that is not wildly successful, I cannot imagine what is.  What is further intriguing is that those states that are the most liberal with respect to abortion issues also had the highest rates of abortion–including  California.  And, they represent highly urbanized states like New York, Conn, District of Columbia,  There is a clear relationship between the liberalization of the states, and the high abortion rate.  And while this next statement is not scientifically accurate, it can be inferred, that these states with the highest abortions are also those states with the highest levels of promiscuity.  And while one could argue that this high level of promiscuity should be reason enough to teach comprehensive sex ed, it also clearly shows a fundamental ineptitude on the part of government, parents, teachers–and of course the ACLU to try to put a bandaid on a wound with a patch that is hopelessly infected and disease ridden.  If the ACLU really cared about the Teens in the State of California, they would go to Court to require the State and the Feds to clearly evaluate and identify the casual factors of why social policies in these high income urban states have dramatically higher levels of teen pregnancy and its subsequent concommitant levels of abortion.  And while everyone should draw their own conclusion.  My conclusion,  based on the available evidence from the author’s own source,  indicates that there is a higher pregnancy rate in those states that foster more liberalized attitudes of sexuality as opposed to those states that have more conservative values. And the sad conclusion is that the ACLU with these kind of attack dog tactics is not really serving the interests of children and teens.  Rather they are an organization that is out of control and is clearly ideologically driven.  They are as fundamentally biased and bigoted as any right wing group.  Truly they are the other side of the same coin.  And they have no interest in serving the reproductive rights of women, but only their own ideological agenda.  The Guttmacher reference that I am quoting is Table 3.3 and here is the link:



      What women and teens need is less propaganda, and more proactive and viable solutions.  Sometimes the solutions will come from totally unanticipated sources.  But unless one’s mind is open to other possibilities, those in need  will have  no  chance.  And as usual, it is the women and children that suffer most.

  • faultroy

    Unfortunately the evidence does not support your conclusion.  The abortion rate is in the upper half of the states’ abortion rate.  That means that many more people that are non Mormons are getting abortions.  It is an unusually high number of abortions for such a conservative state.  It would be most interesting to find out why, but again it’s clearly not for the reason you mentioned.  For statistical evidence, please click on the link of the post below this one.

  • crowepps

     I must make  one point perfectly clear: 1) Abstinence Only Sex Education, is the ONLY PROGRAM THAT WILL 100% GUARANTEE  STD AND AIDS FREE STUDENTS. 

    This is just not true, and the reason that it is not true is the ‘abstinence only sex education’ is NOT effective in changing the behavior of students.


    I would agree that remaining a virgin and never having sex at all would indeed be complete protection from STDs including HIV/AIDS, however, again, abstinence only sex education is  NOT 100% effective in convincing 100% of students to do this.

    To tell a student that any form of birth control including condoms will prevent STDs is clearly a violation of law since it has been proven scientifically inaccurate. 

    So far as I know, nobody makes the incorrect statement that condoms will prevent STDs but rather the more correct statement that condoms will lower the incidence of infection by providing PARTIAL protection if they are used correctly every time.

    Epidemiologic studies that compare rates of HIV infection between condom users and nonusers who have HIV-infected sex partners demonstrate that consistent condom use is highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV. Similarly, epidemiologic studies have shown that condom use reduces the risk of many other STDs.


    There are no 100% guarantees in life.  Partial protection is better than no protection at all.

  • amyc



    It seems you didn’t even look at the numbers. The states with the highest birthrate according to guttmacher were: New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and Mississippi. The numbers are the same in my first link, showing a higher percentage of decrease in teenage pregnancy rates in California, Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, and Massachusetts. You want to know which states have had the least amount of percentage decrease? Utah, Iowa, Texas, Nebraska, Mississippi, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and (coming in last) Wyoming.

    The guttmacher report attritributes almost all of the the overall decrease in teenage pregnancy rates to increased contraceptive use. According to the report “about one quarter of the decline during the same period was attributable to reduced sexual activity and three quarters to increased contraceptive use” (page 4, ustp guttmacher report).

    It looks like you read the report and then cherry-picked the information you wanted to represent. You only had to read four pages to get to the information about why the decrease happened. Yes there has been a decline, but the report clearly shows that the decline in teen pregnancy is NOT due to abstinence-only education, because abstinence-only education does not talk about contraceptive use (I know, I was a student in these “classes”).

    Your idea that abortion rates are higher because of higher promiscuity is just asinine. Maybe the abortion rate is higher because women know that in those states abortion is more readily available. Women from conservative states (where abortion is not readily available) will travel across state lines to obtain an abortion. This could have something to do with the increase in abortion in those states. Also, women in more liberal states tend to feel that they have more choices. I live in Texas, I know of a few girls who wanted to have an abortion, but were pressured into carrying the pregnancy to full-term (both gave their child up for adoption).

    Many girls here also don’t see it as an option at all. Even though they are taught abstinence-only at home and (sometimes) at school, they still have sex. Of course, they didn’t receive the education they needed, so they get pregnant. These are girls who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They are shamed for having sex and getting pregnant, but they have also been brought up to believe that abortion is murder. Of course these girls will not have an abortion. Higher abortion rates do not mean higher promiscuity. Especially when the states with higher abortion rates among teens also have fewer teen pregnancy rates.

    Also remember that in many conservative states (including Texas), a girl under 18 cannot get an abortion without parental  consent. There was a girl in my junior high school who was pregnant (actually there were two girls). The baby’s father was the girl’s father. Regardless she could not get an abortion. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. Although I do believe that the girl’s abusive father was out of the picture by this time, her mother still would not consent to an abortion. This girl was 13(?) in a conservative, rural community. She had to options. In Texas, if a doctor performs an abortion for a minor without parental consent, they could get the death penalty. It is a recent change to the law, and it hasn’t been constitutionally tested. But just the threat of this prevents many abortion providers from accepting young girls (even with parental consent).

    Then you claim that these “liberal” states have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Let’s look at the numbers again. The states with the highest teen pregnancy rates are: Georgia, California, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi, Arizona, and Nevada. Yes California is in that list, but remember, they also have had the highest amount of decrease in teen pregnancy rates. The other states listed are still ranked the lowest for the amount of decrease. So, not only do these conservative states have the highest rates of teen pregnancies, but the states are also not decreasing their teen pregnancy rates. Obviously, California is doing something right. Their teen pregnancy rate has decreased by 39.6%. That’s the highest in the nation.

    My last point: This article was not saying that abstinence-only education had taken over in California. The article was saying that some school districts were ignoring the current law in California. Seeing as how the states with the highest decrease in teen pregnancy are also states that use comprehensive sex education, I would say that it works.

    Next time, please try to make your point without cherry-picking information.