Panel advances bill updating SC's sex ed law

COLUMBIA - A Senate committee on Thursday advanced a bill that updates South Carolina's 26-year-old sex-education law by requiring the teaching of medically accurate health information.

The bill sent to the full Senate Education Committee also tries to improve school districts' compliance by withholding 1 percent of their funding until they file reports. Currently, many districts do not fill out an annual survey on what information is taught and in what grades.

Rep. B.R. Skelton said his bill seeks to reduce teen pregnancies, which is costly to both teens and taxpayers, since it's associated with students dropping out of high school and becoming dependent on government aid. The measure also seeks to reduce abortions and sexually transmitted diseases.

"This bill is not a panacea to resolve all of those problems, but if it goes a little of the way, it's something we need to do," said Skelton, R-Six Mile. "I think most rational, sane human beings want medically accurate information to be taught. ... There's all kinds of distorted information being taught about sex education."

His bill initially also required that, by 2020, teachers be certified to teach the course, which is often taught by someone with no background in science. But that was taken out in order to get it through the House. Despite the change, it still barely passed, on a 57-53 vote.

Forrest Alton, a representative of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, asked senators to restore that provision.

"At a minimum, we need well-trained teachers in the classroom, not the gym teacher or the person who showed up late at the staff meeting," he said.

His comment clearly irked Sen. Mike Fair, who said it impugned the abilities of physical education teachers. Fair, R-Greenville, voted to "abstain" - pun intended - saying the bill's definition of medically accurate is too vague.

"It's too loosey-goosey," he said, adding that he'll propose an amendment later in the process.

The bill makes no changes to the current requirement that abstinence until marriage must be strongly emphasized. But opponents who packed House hearings on the bill said the only message students should receive in school is to not have sex until marriage.

Teen pregnancy rates have gone down over the past 20 years. More than 5,500 teens in South Carolina ages 15 to 19 became pregnant in 2012, the latest year available, for a rate of 37 per 1,000 teens in that age group. But that's down from more than 9,500 in 1991, or 73 teens per 1,000, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

That's a remarkable decrease, but the state still has a long way to go, Alton said.

Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, applauded the bill's efforts, saying it's never good when a "child is born to a parent with no income."