The silent majority in Wake County, or rather the silent super-majority, is in favor of comprehensive sex education as an option in the public schools. So says Dean Debnam, the Raleigh Democrat-businessman whose enterprises include PPP, for Public Policy Polling. After the Wake school board in December voted 5-4 to revert to an "abstinence-only" curriculum, Debnam decided to ask the voters what they think. The answer: They couldn't agree less.
PPP's survey of 803 voters found support for a comprehensive sex-ed option was stronger among Democrats than Republicans, but pro-education majorities exist in both political parties and transcended gender, race and age categories. Asked to respond to the proposition that the school board should "allow, but not require" high school students to take a comprehensive sex-ed course, 61 percent of all voters agreed strongly, and another 18 percent agreed somewhat, for a total of 79 percent; among Democrats, the total of supporters was 89 percent, but 64 percent of Republicans also agreed, as did 74 percent of independents.
Should the curriculum, in addition to teaching about abstinence, also teach students how to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases? Yes, said 64 percent. Only 23 percent said no.
Notwithstanding the findings, however, the October school board elections produced two new school board members who are opposed to anything other than abstinence-only sex ed, even on a voluntary basis. They quickly joined three returning members in a vote overturning the one-year-old policy under which Wake high schools were allowed to offer sex education as an elective.
What interests Debnam is that neither of the two new members, Carol Parker and Ron Margiotta, made opposition to sex education a visible part of their campaigns. Parker, who ran in North Raleigh, was unopposed. Margiotta, in a Cary-Apex district, defeated the incumbent Jeff York under a school-choice banner.
Had their positions been known, Debnam thinks, and had they run against candidates who made clear their own support for sex education, both new board members might have lost. Big majorities of Democrats and independents, according to the poll, said that knowing a candidate favored the sex-ed option would make them more likely to support her election. And while only 31 percent of Republicans took that position, 40 percent said that knowing a candidate was abstinence-only would make them less likely to vote for him.
"There's a huge negative association with the right-wing position on sex ed," Debnam says. "Our job is to make sure we have someone running for every seat, and to communicate their positions to the voters who agree with them, and also communicate their opponents' positions."
"Our," to Debnam, means the Democratic Party. The party dropped the ball in failing to support York and oppose Parker, he says. "If we had Democratic candidates for each seat and they were funded well enough to deliver the message that they were Democrats, and the Republican was running a right-wing agenda or getting support from a right-wing group, we could easily win enough seats to control the board."
Even though school elections are nominally nonpartisan, the leader on the abstinence-only side was longtime board member Bill Fletcher of Cary, who is running for the Republican nomination for state superintendent of schools. Fletcher's board seat will be one of four contested in the '05 elections. Two of the three others are held by members who voted abstinence-only: Patti Head, another North Raleigh member, and Amy Bannister White of Garner. The final seat is held by former board chair Kathryn Watson Quigg of Wake Forest, who supports the voluntary sex-ed option.