In a state with nation-leading rates of obesity, drug overdose and infant mortality, the last thing Ohio schools should do is shortchange basic health education. Unfortunately, Ohio actually is the last — the lone holdout that gives public schools no guidance on teaching health.
Freshman lawmaker Beth Liston, a Democrat and a practicing physician from Dublin in the House of Representatives, has a prescription for needed change. She’s sponsoring House Bill 165, which would require the State Board of Education to adopt content standards for health education and make them available to all Ohio schools.
Schools and school districts wouldn’t be required to base their curriculum on the state standards, but they would have scientifically solid guidelines available if they choose to use them.
Given that all 49 other states already have health education standards and that health education is the only notable gap in Ohio’s standards, one would think the matter should be uncontroversial. But one would underestimate the Ohio General Assembly’s capacity to politicize basic science.
Tellingly, the first thing HB 165 would have to do is repeal a prohibition on health education standards. That’s right — a prohibition. In the 1990s, when state school board officials talked of creating a set of standards for what children should learn about health, lawmakers were so worried about what they might say about sex and abortion that they forbade the board from developing any health education standards without a vote of approval from the House and Senate.
Since then neither the state school board nor the Department of Education has tried, which is unsurprising, given the backward element in the legislature. This is a body, after all, that came close to inserting religion, cloaked as “intelligent design,” into science education standards. For Ohio lawmakers to reach agreement on a health curriculum would be a tall order.
Happily, it isn’t their job, or shouldn’t be. Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and a supporter of Liston’s bill, is right that the state legislature shouldn’t be dictating educational content standards, and it certainly shouldn’t be forbidding the appropriate entities — the state school board and the Department of Education — from doing so.
That’s why we have a school board and Department of Education, which can consult with experts in any field to devise educational content standards that are accurate and age-appropriate. The legislature should serve as a brake only in extraordinary circumstances.
To be fair, teaching health practices is more personal and thus more sensitive than, say, math or geography. HB 165 steers clear of abortion, and that’s fine; hoping for consensus on that impossibly divisive issue is useless.
Sex education in Ohio is governed by separate statutes and stresses avoiding pregnancy.
Ohio communities face real challenges stemming from childhood obesity, an epidemic of opioid abuse, high rates of smoking and mental health needs that go unmet. Schools, where children spend half of their waking time, are a logical place to reach them with reliable information presented by trusted adults.
HB 165 would require the state board to either adopt health education standards already developed by the American Association for Health Education or to develop its own, with the national standards as a guide.
Ohio students shouldn’t be denied access to information that could be literally lifesaving because a few social conservatives don’t like it.