Monday, November 24, 2008

Analysis: McCain's "Education" Ad Claims Obama Supported Sex Education for Kindergarteners

Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) presidential campaign released an ad on September 7, 2008, with this content:

NARRATOR: Education Week says Obama hasn't made a significant mark on education,
TEXT: Education Week: "Hasn't made a significant mark on education." 3/7/07
NARRATOR: That he's elusive on accountability,
TEXT: The Washington Post: "Elusive" 7/7/08
NARRATOR: A staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly.
TEXT: Chicago Tribune: "Staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly." 7/20/08
NARRATOR: Obama's one accomplishment?
TEXT: Obama's one accomplishment?
NARRATOR: Legislation to teach comprehensive sex education to kindergarteners.
TEXT: Illinois Senate Health and Human Servicess Committee: "Comprehensive sex education" 5.8.99, passed 3/6/03
NARRATOR: Learning about sex before learning to read?
TEXT: Learning about sex before learning to read?
NARRATOR: Barack Obama: wrong on education,
TEXT: Wrong on education
NARRATOR: Wrong for your family.
TEXT: Wrong for your family
MCCAIN: I'm John McCain and I approved this message.
TEXT: Paid for by McCain-Palin 2008. Approved by John McCain
* [YouTube: Barack Obama Sex Ed for Kindergarten 5 year olds.]

There are a variety of claims being made in this ad, but it is the last one -- that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) supported teaching "comprehensive sex education to kindergarteners" -- is the most serious.

First, though, let's address the other claims being made, which were made by various periodicals, but which the McCain campaign has chosen to publicize (and, as such, implicitly endorse):

  • Obama "hasn't made a significant mark on education": Since it's arguable what amounts to a "significant mark", it's arguable whether or not this is true. But, if it is, is that such a bad thing? Many politicians haven't made a "significant mark" on lots of issues, does that seriously count against electing them?
  • Obama is "elusive" on education issues: Again, it's not clear what counts as "elusive", so it's not clear whether this is true.
  • Obama is a "staunch defender of the existing public school monopoly": Perhaps this is true, but we're given no reason to think that defending the "public school monopoly" is a bad thing. Maybe it is, but the ad only assumes this point, it doesn't offer -- or even point us toward -- any argument for it.

Beyond these issues, there is also the matter of whether these sources -- Education Week, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune -- are being accurately quoted by the McCain campaign.

Was the Sex-Ed Bill Obama's "One Accomplishment" in Education?

On the sex education legislation, the McCain ad calls it Obama's "one accomplishment". But this claim is problematic on a variety of fronts.

First, the bill never became law, so can it be called an accomplishment at all?

Second, while Obama did vote for the bill, he was not a sponsor of it. So, if it HAD passed, would it be correct to call the bill HIS accomplishment, rather than the accomplishment of those who DID sponsor it?

Finally, Obama has -- in the Illinois State Senate and in the U.S. Senate -- sponsored other education legislation. Shouldn't these other pieces of legislation be considered accomplishments, as well? As such, isn't the "one accomplishment" assertion false?

Did Obama Support Inappropriate Sex Education for Kindergarteners?

But the most serious claim made by the McCain ad is that the legislation that Obama supported would have allowed inappropriate sex education for kindergarteners.

But is this true?

The answer to that question hinges, in part, on what counts as appropriate sex education, a matter of controversy that I won't go into here.

However, the answer also hinges on the content of the bill (you can see the text of the legislation here: Illinois General Assembly: Full Text of SB0099).

The bill says the following:

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.

This pronouncement is ambiguous. As a student, would the "comprehensive sex education" I receive occur over the course grades K through 12 (that is, piece by piece over 13 years), or would it occur in just one year (that is, once in kindergarten, then again in first grade, then AGAIN in second grade, and so on)?

The bill, in this respect, is poorly worded, since it seems open to the interpretation that a student could receive a comprehensive sex education in just one year (including instruction on HIV and other STDs, etc.), and at an age of as young as five years old (and then again at six years old, and AGAIN at seven, and so on).

However, the bill also says:

All course material and instruction shall be age and developmentally appropriate.


All course material and instruction in classes that teach sex education and discuss sexual activity or behavior shall be age and developmentally appropriate.

This fits in more with the idea that students would receive a comprehensive sex education over the course of 13 years -- starting at age five and ending at age 18 -- rather than all in one year while they're still learning to read.

Of course, the "age appropriate" constraint is not clearly spelled out, but neither is it absent altogether. The bill could certainly do to be clearer about what, exactly, is going to be taught to five-year-olds regarding sex education (it was suggested that kindergarteners would be taught about "inappropriate touching" so that they would not fall prey to child molesters [ Off Base on Sex Ed (September 10, 2008)]).

But it's far from clear that this is opening the door -- intentionally or unintentionally -- to teaching five-year-old children about sex, HIV, condoms and so forth. McCain is baselessly endorsing the worst interpretation of a somewhat ambiguous bill.

It is false for the McCain campaign to assert that the bill would definitely have had these consequences, let alone to imply that this was an accomplishment that Obama sought to bring about.

-- Civ.

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