Analysis: Here’s another thing the ‘porn literacy’ sex ed narrative gets wrong

Here are 14 important words from the Idaho Freedom Foundation-fueled furor over sex education curriculum that promoted “porn literacy.”

“No one can say how many school districts in Idaho have adopted this curriculum …”

Those 14 words came from the Freedom Foundation itself. Not from the Department of Health and Welfare. Not from the Freedom Foundation’s leagues of social media adversaries. And not from the “legacy media” the Freedom Foundation loves to demonize.

The Freedom Foundation can’t tell you how big this purported problem is.

Which suggests, logically, that the Freedom Foundation can’t prove this is a problem anywhere in Idaho.

The Freedom Foundation didn’t allow this inconvenient research deficiency to stand in its way. After admitting it couldn’t quantify the “crisis,” the right-wing organization quickly accused most of the state’s health districts of promoting an improper sex education curriculum.

Then the Freedom Foundation attached a scandalous headline to its work: “Idaho’s government offers ‘porn literacy,’ other corrupting practices to K-12 students.”

And then, the Freedom Foundation’s headline had its desired effect — as right-wing news outlets hopped on the story. Fox News host Laura Ingraham gave the Freedom Foundation some national exposure, parroting the foundation’s “cartoon porn” storyline as part of a bigger story about moral decline in the nation’s schools.

If the Freedom Foundation is a bunch of “conflict entrepreneurs,” as University of Idaho President C. Scott Green famously put it earlier this year, then business was good last week.

Closer to home, and outside the Fox News echo chamber, reporters were quick to fact-check the Freedom Foundation report, and poke wide holes in it. (Hat tips and links to Andrew Baertlein at KTVB in Boise, Daniel Walters at the Inlander in Spokane, Wash., and Angelo Fichera of the Associated Press.)

But let’s drill down more closely on the Department of Health and Welfare’s response to the Freedom Foundation report, and one key sentence.

“(Health and Welfare) provides evidence-based optional sex education curriculum, called Reducing the Risk, for Idaho schools.”

The key word here is “optional,” and you’re going to see it several times these next few paragraphs.

Here’s how sex education really works in Idaho schools.

First and foremost, any form of sex education is optional. Parents can opt their children out of sex education. And that’s not likely to change any time soon. If anything, the Legislature is more likely to tighten the law and require parental consent. The House passed Idaho Falls Republican Rep. Barbara Ehardt’s sex-ed “opt-in” bill in 2021, before it narrowly died in the Senate Education Committee.

Meanwhile, sex ed is also optional at the school level.

“The decision as to whether or not any program in family life and sex education is to be introduced in the schools is a matter for determination at the local district level by the local school board of duly selected representatives of the people of the community,” according to state code.

So let’s say trustees choose to start a sex ed program. That’s when the state’s academic standards come into play.

Idaho does not have sex ed standards per se; the subject is folded into health education standards.

For sixth- through eighth-graders, sex ed is expected to cover “consequences of sexual activity, encouragement of abstinence from sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, and methods of disease and pregnancy prevention.” In ninth through 12th grade, the standards put a sharper point on these topics — folding in the “personal, legal and economic responsibilities of parenthood” and covering the transmission and prevention of STDs.

The standards just don’t square with the notion of rampant, libertine sex education in Idaho classrooms.

In health education — or in any academic subject — the state simply passes standards: a set of academic milestones students are expected to reach. School trustees and charter school boards then choose the curriculum, and the classroom materials, tailored to the standards.

So yes, Health and Welfare provides only optional curriculum. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work.

For argument’s sake, let’s entertain the Freedom Foundation’s most lurid worst-case scenario. If an Idaho school adopted a curriculum that promotes porn literacy, locally elected trustees would have to answer for their decision. And, perhaps, they’d get voted out of office over it.

That’s how education works in a local control state. No matter what Freedom Foundation education policy director Anna Miller and Boise State University political science professor Scott Yenor would have you believe.

They wrote that Health and Welfare “implements” a Planned Parenthood-endorsed sex-ed curriculum. They wrote that Health and Welfare “directs” its allies in the state’s health districts to force this curriculum on local schools. They later create even more confusion, by calling the curriculum a “state-recommended” resource.

So let’s clear it up. If Health and Welfare could implement a porn literacy-friendly curriculum, as the Freedom Foundation alleges, then we’d all know exactly how many school districts teach porn literacy-friendly sex ed. The answer would be 115: every district in Idaho.

Among other things, Miller and Yenor painted an ominous and false picture of a heavy-handed state government with a sex-ed agenda on the brain. And on national television last week, Ingraham breathlessly bought in.

“In Idaho — Idaho — mothers and fathers were shocked this week to discover the state’s department of health and welfare is implementing a sex ed curriculum endorsed by Planned Parenthood.”

Imagine how shocking this would be if it were actually true.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Normally, his analysis pieces are published each Thursday. Due to the timeliness of the topic, this week’s analysis was published on Monday, Sept. 19.

 

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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