It's become a variation on the comical adage, "You can choose any color you want as long as it's black."
In Wisconsin, parents can pull their kids out of sex education. While that sounds fair, opting out comes with a de facto penalty since it's an all or nothing choice: by opting out, kids lose some of the important aspects of the education. One school board in a Milwaukee suburb tried to fix that by giving parents more choice. But that has some Wisconsin officials screaming foul.
Historically the "opt-out" option has handcuffed many parents, leaving them with the illusion of choice instead of the full benefits of one. That's especially true considering the default places students in the sex ed class, and parents must go out of their way in order to bypass the class. The opt-out was part of a Wisconsin sex ed bill that mandates lessons on intercourse, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and masturbation.
But school board officials in Cedarburg, WI felt that not all parents would be comfortable with the new requirements. So instead of defy the state, they simply offered parents more choice: instead of making parents go out of their way to pull students out of the ninth grade sex ed class, parents would have to go out of their way to put students in it, and those who did could "opt-in" for only the non-controversial subjects.
As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tom McIlheran explains, the difference is in the default:
Previously, if you decided that maybe you didn't quite trust the government to instruct your kid on all this -- and, golly, after three decades of school-run sex ed and a 40% national illegitimacy rate, what's there to worry about, huh? -- then you'd have to opt out. You'd have to affirmatively tell the school you didn't want it explaining the, um, ins and outs.
Now, Cedarburg's school board says, the schools will still offer all the lessons -- but if you want your ninth-grader to get the part about condoms and intercourse and all, you'll have to opt in. You have to say yes.
Simply put, parents have until November 1 to return a signed permission form saying they have opted in. If it is not returned or not signed, the district assumes the parents have opted out.
"We want parents to be aware of what is being taught," Cedarburg school board member Rick Leach told the Journal Sentinel. "We wanted to engage parents in their children's education."
According to board President Kevin Kennedy, the former policy meant parents had to opt out of everything, including topics that aren't as controversial.
"There's a ton of things in these courses that are covered that aren't controversial," Kennedy told the paper. "Whether or not you buy into the sensitive topics, there's still a lot of great information you want your kids to know about it."
But that thinking is upsetting to some officials, including one Wisconsin lawmaker.
"The intent of the bill, which is a bill I have been working on since I've been elected, was to make sure that any school district that taught human growth and development included a curriculum that was comprehensive," state Rep. Tamara Grigsby, one of the bill's co-authors, told the Journal Sentinel.
Physician Dan Hagerman, a parent of a Cedarburg ninth-grader, said the new policy will unfairly affect hectic families. "The kids with families who are more chaotic and don't turn in this form are the ones who probably need it," Hagerman said.
McIlheran disagrees with both Grigsby and Hagerman. "Grigsby's law isn't asking whether some stranger can teach your kid what's right and what's wrong," he wrote. "It's telling."
The choice parents were given in the past, he adds, was never meant to be one:
The reactions to the simple change in Cedarburg suggests that opting out was never really meant to be an option. Sure, you could, but you weren't supposed to.
The Cedarburg school district is going forward with its plan: parents can choose more than just the color black -- for now.
This story has been updated for clarity.