RICHMOND, DEC. 9 -- The state Board of Education voted today to require all public schools in Virginia, including those at the elementary level, to adopt a comprehensive human sexuality curriculum that conservative critics say they will fight in the coming General Assembly session.
In a 7-to-2 vote after nearly a year of ethical and political debates, the board adopted guidelines for a statewide "family life" program that would include information on contraception, homosexuality, human reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.
"This is far-reaching because many other states are only just beginning to go through this process," said state Superintendent S. John Davis. "Now our young people will be better informed to face the realities of today's society."
While the state board issued a list of required subject areas, such as contraception and reproduction, it allowed local school systems discretion over when and how to teach those subjects. The board also voted to withhold state matching funds from localities whose curricula do not meet the standards of a family life program endorsed by the board last month.
The state program is generally broader in scope than the sex education curriculum in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties, educators there have said. The subject of abortion, for example, is not now included in Fairfax lesson plans.
However, the state plan is more conservative than Alexandria's nationally acclaimed family life program and is generally on par with what is being taught in Arlington.
Supporters of the board's initiative, which would cost taxpayers $5.5 million over the next two years, say it gives young people the "survival skills" they need to cope at home, in school and in the community. Opponents, who by Tuesday had flooded the board's offices with hundreds of letters of protest, said the family life program would give youngsters too much information too soon in life, much of it at the expense of parents' authority.
"The board just mandated higher teen pregnancy," declared Mark Stannard, a spokesman for a network of "profamily" groups called the Concerned Citizens Council. Stannard said the school program should have emphasized abstinence over contraception and given localities even more leeway in drafting their own family life curricula.
Under the board's guidelines, local family life programs must teach "the value of postponing sexual activity" and give parents the option of removing their children from class during lessons on sexuality. Aside from addressing sexuality, the family life program calls for the promotion of students' self-esteem and awareness of others.
In its three-hour meeting here today, the board rejected an attempt by member Adelard L. Brault of Fairfax County to eliminate contraception from the required subjects. Brault contended that such information would offend Roman Catholics and violated the spirit of local control.
"If we are really serious about giving the localities the option of deciding what their children will be taught, adding contraception is a contradiction in itself," said Brault, who opposed other parts of the family life plan.
The board also rebuffed an attempt by member Sandra A. Vaughan of Petersburg to limit the teaching of the family life curriculum to grades 5 through 12, rather than the kindergarten-through-high-school program it now specifies.
Suzanne F. Thomas, a board member from Alexandria who gave an impassioned appeal for passage of the curriculum guidelines, described the program as "an enhancement to, rather than a detraction from, the education of our children."
"I think we ought to mandate it," Thomas said, moments before the board effectively did that by linking local curricula to the state's model program. "We should not be afraid of the word 'mandate,' " Thomas added.
The focus of the sex education debate now shifts to the General Assembly, which controls the funds that could make or break the family life program. State Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst), who staunchly opposes any broad expansion of sex education in public schools, said today he intends for the new curriculum's reception by the legislature to be "as rough as I can make it."
"There's nothing wrong with learning the facts of life, but do it at the appropriate age level," Wilkins said. "We're giving our kids mixed messages: telling them to abstain from sex but telling them all about contraception at the same time."