Illinois schools that teach sex education will be required to provide information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases — not just abstinence — under a bill that Gov. Pat Quinn has said he'll sign into law.
The bill, passed by the General Assembly this spring, would take effect Jan. 1 and is intended to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, said Democratic state Sen. Heather Steans, a co-sponsor of the legislation. Quinn's office says he supports the legislation but hasn't yet set a date to sign it.
"Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way, but the reality is that by the end of senior year in high school, two-thirds of our kids are saying that they've had sex," Steans said.
It's unclear how much the measure will affect what most schools already do. Some districts say they're already meeting the bill's requirements, though some statistics suggest that many others are not.
The Illinois Board of Education doesn't track how many of the state's more than 860 public school districts provide sex education, or of those that do, what they teach.
But a 2008 University of Chicago study found that 93 percent of the state's public school districts offered sex ed. About 65 percent of the sex ed teachers taught what researchers considered a comprehensive program, including contraception and STDs.
Steans and supporters of the new legislation believe that's a serious gap that may contribute to high rates of STDs among teens in Illinois.
In Illinois, 35 percent of all chlamydia cases were among 15 to 19 year olds in 2011, according to state data for that year, the most recent available. Teens in that age range accounted for one-third of all gonorrhea cases reported in state that year.
"For me it really is best practices and what actually works," Steans said.
Even so, that doesn't mean all Illinois students will get the same message.
Illinois law now says abstinence should be taught as the norm, and school districts can opt out of teaching sex ed altogether.
Under the new legislation, districts still could decide not to teach sex ed, and parents will be able to hold their kids out of classes in districts that do teach it. But all schools that teach sex education would have to include information about contraception and STDs.
Some districts where abstinence is emphasized may try to make the case that they're already meeting the new requirements.
The Chicago-based Abstinence and Marriage Education Partnership, which sells abstinence-based sex ed curricula, is telling its clients they don't need to make any changes. The group's programs already cover contraception, founder and Executive Director Scott Phelps said, just not in great detail.
"We don't teach them how to use contraception, but we teach them what it is," he said. "We don't see how our curricula would in any way violate the new law."
Since the state doesn't track them, it isn't clear which school districts have used abstinence-only curricula. Phelps declined to identify any of the districts he does business with, saying they don't go out of their way to identify themselves to avoid being pressured by proponents of broader sex ed programs.
Others say they see the value in giving students more information.
At Grant Middle School in Springfield, principal Tammie Bolden is waiting for instruction on how the legislation might affect what her school teaches, but she doesn't anticipate any serious changes. The curriculum, offered to all of the school's roughly 200 seventh-graders, already is comprehensive, she said.
"We're still at the learning stage and understanding specifics," she said. "I don't think we would have to do a new curriculum. So it would just be some adjustments made."