In Madison schools, sex education begins in the fourth and fifth grades.
"Research states that information is needed, and it's needed at early ages and needs to be developmentally appropriate," says Lisa Wachtel, who oversees curriculum for the Madison Metropolitan School District. "Providing accurate, sound information in a safe environment for students is necessary for them to be able to have frank conversations about issues."
A bill now in legislative committee would update existing law regarding the teaching of sex ed in Wisconsin public schools. Introduced last month by state Rep. Tamara Grigsby and Sen. Lena Taylor, both Democrats from Milwaukee, the Healthy Youth Act (AB-458 and SB-324) would require that any such instruction stress abstinence first, and then give "age-appropriate, medically accurate information" on how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease, as well as spot abuse. [The print version of this article mistated the act's actual name.]
Currently, districts must stress abstinence and are not required to also teach contraception and disease prevention.
The bill would still let schools eschew teaching sex ed altogether, and parents could still pull their kids out of any of these classes. But, as now worded, it would require that parents be notified if their kids are not receiving any sex ed instruction.
Proponents say the bill addresses a health crisis among teens, with sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy on the rise in the state. Milwaukee County, in particular, has long had a teen pregnancy problem, consistently ranking in the top 10 of major U.S. cities for high teen pregnancy rates.
"If they do teach," says Chris Taylor, public policy director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin, "they'll no longer be able to teach abstinence only. Abstinence just does not work to change teen behavior. Studies have concluded that."
Taylor says the bill is urgently needed because of the "terrible numbers" being reported for Wisconsin teens.
Teen births in Wisconsin increased statewide in 2007, Department of Health Services figures show. The teen birth rate in 2007 (the most recent figures available) was 32 births per 1,000 females age 15-19 statewide, up from 30.6 births in 2006 and 30.1 in 2005. The 2007 rate was 29.3 births per 1,000 girls in the city of Madison and 84.3 in the city of Milwaukee, according to the state report on Births to Teens (http://dhs.wisconsin.gov/births/pdf/07teenbirths.pdf).
Meanwhile, chlamydia rates were at 371 cases per 100,000 for all Wisconsin residents, according to a 2008 report. Dane County's rate was 1,332 per 100,000; Milwaukee County's was 5,479. [The print version of the article incorrectly reported these as the rates for Wisconsin teens.]
AB-458's opponents agree there's a crisis but say this legislation would make it worse. "Forcing contraception education into the schools not only violates local control, but it's dangerous and ineffective and not a good idea," says Matt Sande, legislative affairs director with Pro-Life Wisconsin.
The bill is also opposed by Wisconsin Right to Life and Wisconsin Family Action. In a memo to legislators, Wisconsin Right to Life legislative director Susan Armacost states: "AB-458 would require that students be taught about a number of activities that could endanger their health and could result in a growing number of teen sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancies and abortions."
Similarly, in her testimony before a legislative committee, Wisconsin Family Action president Julaine Appling said the bill "condemns all school districts to the so-called comprehensive sex education approach that has been responsible for the crisis that we currently have in unprecedented rates of sexually transmitted diseases among our teens and increasing teen pregnancies."
The current state law stressing abstinence was signed into law by Gov. Jim Doyle in 2006. It does allow local school boards to provide more comprehensive sex ed. Madison schools, for instance, currently include contraception education and information on STDs as part of regular health and physical education classes.
Neither Planned Parenthood nor Pro-Life Wisconsin knows how many districts teach the abstinence-only approach, but it is thought to be a small number.
Madison School Board member and former teacher Marj Passman, a proponent of the new bill, says it "still surprises me in this day and age that this is such a controversial issue." Passman is concerned about girls who give up their education because they become pregnant and need to parent their children.
Faustina (Tina) Bohling, 34, was one of them when she became pregnant at 16 and had her first son. Now a UW-Madison graduate and mother of four, Bohling was fortunate to have the support to succeed as a teen mom (she now leads diversity efforts for the Wisconsin Alumni Association). But not all pregnant teens are as lucky.
"We forget the face behind the statistics," Bohling says. "Kids don't talk about why they're having sex. I came from a home where there was abuse and alcoholism. You're in such a rush to grow up so you can get out. And you don't make the best decisions."
Bohling wants her kids, her daughter in particular, to get the facts about sex in school. She says parents - even those in the most forward-looking homes - need help with the difficult sex conversation. "The more open we are about it, the better they'll be."
But Rhonda Thompson, a Middleton mom of five and community relations director at Care Net Pregnancy Center of Dane County, says the law would limit parents' ability to know what is being taught.
"They're restricting access by eliminating the words 'all' and 'at any time,' meaning that parents and community members could only see the curriculum before they begin teaching it," Thompson says. "That change of policy and lack of transparency is disrespectful of parents."
Further, Thompson thinks the bill doesn't do enough to provide information about the emotional and psychological implications of casual sexual activity.
"When you talk about abstinence first, then educate on health benefits of contraception," she says, "the message you're sending to teens is it's acceptable to be engaged in casual sexual activity as long as you use contraception."
The Madison school district, says Wachtel, employs a comprehensive committee to review and update its Human Growth and Development curriculum. She thinks it's appropriate that schools provide information to children about their bodies.
"Our overall perspective," she says, "is that children are not just academic beings but are young people."
As a school board member, Passman doubts Madison's sex ed curriculum would change much due to the passage or failure of this legislation. But she would like to bring boys more into the conversation about the implications of sex, pregnancy and parenthood.
"We have a very strong curriculum, and I think it's in the hands of some very good people," says Passman. "I would like to see more discussion with our young boys, and this is something I may ask some questions about."