Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., this week launched a new TV ad attacking Sen. Barack Obama's record on education.
The script reads as follows: "Education Week says Obama 'hasn’t made a significant mark on education' That he’s 'elusive' on accountability. 'A staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly.' Obama’s one accomplishment? Legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergarteners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family."
The most controversial item in the McCain ad is the assertion that Obama supports children "learning about sex before learning to read," and the accusation that Obama's "one accomplishment" on education was "legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergarteners."
But both claims are false.
The idea seems to be to paint Obama as an insanely liberal sleaze ball who wants to teach young kids who don’t even know how to read all about graphic sexual information.
That's not fair and it's not accurate.
One can only imagine what the John McCain of 2004 – who called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads “dishonest and dishonorable” – would say about this ad.
To back up its claim, the McCain campaign points to Illinois state senate bill 99, which never became law and which Obama didn't author -- though he did vote for it in the state senate education committee on March 6, 2003, on what was a strictly party-line vote.
The text of the bill can be read HERE.
I spoke to two Illinois advocates who were involved with assessing the bill in 2003 – Gretchen McDowell, the past president of the Illinois Parent-Teacher Association and Kelvy Brown, the legislative coordinator of the Chicago Department of Public Health – to see what the bill was trying to accomplish with regards to kindergartners.
The bill was updating Illinois law on health and sex education, addressing sex education classes that already existed at the time, and offering guidelines to instructors as to what should be in those classes.
This is important because the question arises about the use of the word “comprehensive” in McCain’s ad describing the classes.
McCain’s ad makes it sound as if Obama was mandating that kindergartners receive the same information as a sexually active high school senior.
The word “comprehensive” appears just once in the bill as applied to kindergartners, it the section saying that "Each class or course in comprehensive sex education offered in any of grades K through 12 shall include instruction on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including the prevention, transmission and spread of HIV" -- in other words, the word was focused on pre-existing classes that may exist.
McDowell points out that the bill states “All course material and instruction shall be age and developmentally appropriate.”
So what does “comprehensive sex education” mean in terms of kindergartners?
“It means teaching kids about families,” McDowell says.
Is McCain right when he says Obama wanted kids to learn about sex before they learned how to read?
“If by 'sex' he meant that there are boys and girls and mothers and fathers, yes," McDowell says.
But that's clearly not what McCain is suggesting.
"No reasonable person would believe we’re talking about teaching kindergartners about sexual intercourse," McDowell says. "I don’t think Sen. McCain believes that.”
Says Brown, “things for freshmen in high school and for 7th and 8th graders are not the kind of curriculum you would have for a student in kindergarten."
Obama’s opponent during his run for the US Senate in 2004, former Ambassador Alan Keyes, charged that Obama was proposing teaching sexually explicit material to kindergartners.
During a Senate debate in October 2004, Obama said, “Actually, that wasn't what I had in mind. We have a existing law that mandates sex education in the schools. We want to make sure that it's medically accurate and age-appropriate. Now, I'll give you an example, because I have a six-year-old daughter and a three-year-old daughter, and one of the things my wife and I talked to our daughter about is the possibility of somebody touching them inappropriately, and what that might mean. And that was included specifically in the law, so that kindergarteners are able to exercise some possible protection against abuse, because I have family members as well as friends who suffered abuse at that age. So, that's the kind of stuff that I was talking about in that piece of legislation.”
McDowell says that Obama was correct, and says that the Illinois PTA had been active for a long time in encouraging schools to educate children about improper touching.
“A lot of schools don’t have people trained to explain that kind of thing to students without scaring them,” she says.
The bill said students should learn – in an age-appropriate way -- to not “make unwanted physical and verbal sexual advances and how to say no to unwanted sexual advances and shall include information about verbal, physical, and visual sexual harassment, including without limitation nonconsensual sexual advances, nonconsensual physical sexual contact, and rape by an acquaintance. ...teach male pupils about male accountability for sexual violence and shall teach female students about reducing vulnerability for sexual violence…”
McDowell says this part of the bill would be taught in an “age- and developmentally-appropriate way. Kindergartners need to be taught that there are places – ‘private parts’ - where nobody should touch you. Obviously we’re not going to be talking about rape in kindergarten.”
Brown agrees, saying that part of the bill as applied to young students was “specifically for inappropriate touching and sexual predators. Making sure kids know what’s appropriate and not appropriate. As far as HIV and condoms, you wouldn’t teach that kind of information to students that young.”
McDowell points out that the bill clearly states that no student has to receive the information if his or her parent or guardian objects:
"No pupil shall be required to take or participate in any class or course in comprehensive sex education if the pupil's his parent or guardian submits written objection thereto, and refusal to take or participate in such course or program shall not be reason for suspension or expulsion of such pupil,” the bill says.
“Any parent could opt out,” McDowell says.
I suppose one could twist this stuff any way you want if your only point is to make an inflammatory charge. And win an election.
One could say that if McCain opposes this bill he supports students in kindergarten making unwanted sexual advances towards each other, that he opposes ensuring that 5-year-old girls aren’t vulnerable to sexual violence.
It wouldn’t be true, but Obama could say that -- if his only point was to throw a rhetorical Molotov cocktail at McCain.
The New York Times’ “Checkpoint” (“Ad on Sex Education Distorts Obama Policy “), Factcheck.org (“Obama, contrary to the ad's insinuation, does not support explicit sex education for kindergarteners”) and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker ("McCain's 'Education' Spot Is Dishonest, Deceptive") say the ad is a gross distortion.
I agree -- in both senses of the word "gross."