Sex Ed for Kindergartners?

Romney-Obama Debate Heats Up

ByTeddy Davis and Lindsey Ellerson

July 20, 2007 — -- When Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama reaffirmed to Planned Parenthood this week that he believes elements of sex education should begin in kindergarten, Republican Mitt Romney saw an opening -- and he pounced.

"I was governor four years,' said Romney. "I never had one person coming to me and say, 'You know what, governor, I'm concerned about something.' What's that? 'I'm concerned about sex education. I'm concerned my kids aren't learning enough about sex.' I never heard that."

(Watch Video HERE.)

Romney may have never heard that because Massachusetts -- the state where he served as governor from 2003 to 2007 -- has a decidedly progressive sex education curriculum. Under the state's non-binding framework, school districts can begin working towards the state's sex education goals as early as pre-kindergarten.

By the end of the fifth grade, it not only encourages schools to teach children the basics about puberty and the reproductive system, it also encourages them to know how to define "sexual orientation using the correct terminology (such as heterosexual, and gay and lesbian)." Before the end of fifth grade, the Massachusetts framework also aims to teach children about inappropriate touching.

While Romney had absolutely nothing to do with the development of the state's sex education curriculum, which was put into place more than three years before he became governor, Romney senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom confirmed to ABC News that Romney did not take any efforts to undo it either.

"We had not awareness, no input and certainly did not promote these curriculum frameworks," said Fehrnstrom, who served as Romney's communications director all four years that he was governor.

Sex education entered the 2008 presidential race when Obama was asked his position on sex education at a Planned Parenthood forum and he mimicked an attack that was launched on him in his 2004 Senate campaign by Republican Alan Keyes.

"'Barack Obama supports teaching sex education to kindergarteners,'" said Obama mimicking Keyes' distinctive style of speech. "Which -- I didn't know what to tell him (laughter)."

"But it's the right thing to do," Obama continued, "to provide age-appropriate sex education, science-based sex education in schools."

(Watch Video HERE.)

Obama responded to the attack in 2004 by saying that he wants young children, including his own daughters, to know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate touching because he has family members and friends who suffered abuse at early ages.

He also indicated in his 2004 campaign that he thought schools needed state standards which could guide them as they face basic questions about the reproductive system.

"Nobody's suggesting that kindergartners are going to be getting information about sex in the way that we think about it," said Obama in 2004, according to a Daily Herald clip provided by the Obama campaign. "If they ask a teacher 'where do babies come from,' that providing information that the fact is that it's not a stork is probably not an unhealthy thing. Although again, that's going to be determined on a case by case basis by local communities and local school boards.'"

Debate Over Meaning of "Age Appropriate"

Romney himself once indicated support for teaching "age-appropriate" sex education. In 2002 questionnaire from Planned Parenthood, Romney checked yes to a question that asked: "Do you support the teaching of responsible, age-appropriate, factually accurate health and sexuality education, including information about both abstinence and contraception, in public schools?"

Even though Romney supported the concept of "age appropriate" sex education, his position differs from Obama's in that he personally believes that it is never appropriate to teach any aspect of sex education to someone in kindergarten.

"The issue is whether children in kindergarten should be taught science-based sex education which is what Obama said he favors. Gov. Romney does not support that," said Fehrnstrom. "Let's let our 5-year olds be 5-year olds. When students are old enough for sex education they should be taught abstinence as part of their health curriculum and that marriage should come before babies."

Romney himself underscored this point while campaigning in Colorado on Wednesday.

"How much sex education is age appropriate for a 5-year-old?" asked Romney. "In my view, zero is the right amount. Instead of teaching about sex education in kindergarten to 5-year-olds let's clean up the ocean of filth, the cesspool in which our children are swimming."

What Obama and Massachusetts Share

What the Massachusetts framework and the Obama-supported Illinois legislation share in common is their ambiguity on exactly when particular sex education lessons are to be taught. The Obama legislation would have taken the state's entire sex education standards, which related to 6th through 12th grade, and applied them to all of K-12. The Massachusetts framework merely indicates how early certain lessons can begin and by which date they are to be done. Certain goals are to be reached by the end of grade 5, other goals are to be reached by the end of grade 8, and a third set of goals are to be reached by the end of grade 12.

"How they teach it, when they teach it, is their decision," Heidi Guarino, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts department of education, said of the state's school districts.

Although a Massachusetts school district could teach pre-kindergarten students elements of sex education and still be in compliance with the state's framework, Fehrnstrom told ABC News "anecdotally" that sex ed does not begin in most school districts until grade 5.

Fehrnstrom said the 5th grade start make sense "since there are benchmarks/standards that must be achieved by that time."

Even though Massachusetts does not track the exact grade levels in which school districts decide to teach certain sex education lessons, Guarino of the Massachusetts Department of Education echoed Fehrnstrom's observation that most sex education comes much closer to the end of the pre-K through 5th grade range than to the beginning.

The Obama plan and the Massachusetts framework also share an "opt out" provision for parents.

Romney's Push for Abstinence

Rather than undoing the state's sex ed framework, Romney's focus as governor was on promoting abstinence education. He redirected federal funds which had previously been used on a media-only campaign into the classroom.

Romney's Democratic successor -- Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick -- has eliminated Romney's abstinence program and the Bay State is now one of 10 states which completely rejects federal funds for abstinence education.

Obama Tries to Draw Parallel with Romney

After ABC News began reporting how the Massachusetts sex education curriculum functions, Obama sought to draw a parallel between the K-12 sex education standards he supported in Illinois and the wide-ranging goals that exist elsewhere.

"All I said," Obama told the Associated Press, "was that I support the same laws that exist in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, in which local communities and parents can make decisions to provide children with the information they need to deal with sexual predators."

The Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Curriculum can be read on the website of the state's department of education. The pre-K through grade 5 sex education component appears on page 31.

ABC News' Nik Bonovich, A'Melody Lee, and Leigh Hartman contributed to this report.

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