Is Hawaii’s Sex Ed Curriculum ‘Pono Choices’ Dead?

Should Pono Choices influence our choices in the voting booth?

Just last week, state Rep. Bob McDermott (R-Ewa, Ewa Beach, Iroquois Point) proclaimed the controversial sex education program Pono Choices dead.  But some conservative candidates are still making it a campaign issue.

To be sure, the middle school sex-ed program the state Department of Education introduced at five schools took a big hit. One of the most significant changes is that parents must now opt students IN to the program. Previously, unless a parent opted their child OUT, the middle schoolers would get the sex-ed curriculum.

Despite being in only five schools and under review, some conservative candidates are still raising it as a campaign issue — a problem with our public schools, even — despite McDermott’s belief that the program is dead. Why put attention on a program that’s been killed? Isn’t that beating a dead horse?

Well, that’s partially because McDermott’s characterization isn’t quite accurate.

Here’s what DOE spokewoman Donalyn Dela Cruz had to say about it: “The report clearly states that in order for Pono Choices to be considered for future use in our schools, the University of Hawaii Center on Disability Studies will need to address changes that were recommended.  However, the program is not ‘dead.’”

McDermott just thinks that it’s been so maligned in the media that no parent would opt their child into it, should Pono Choices return. He points out that it not only makes homosexual relations normal, but also overrepresents them in proportion to the average number of gay versus straight couples — or in other words, makes them equal.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, including whether to opt-in or opt-out of sexual education programs. Even McDermott approves of some programs.

But why should Pono Choices influence our choices in the voting booth? Because in less than a week, I’ve heard four conservative candidates raise it as a campaign issue because they think it’s eroding family values. Besides McDermott, House District 47 Republican primary candidates Richard Fale and Colleen Meyer oppose it, as well as candidate for U.S. Senate.

The DOE has also said it’s asking the curriculum creators, University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center on Disability Studies, to review recommendations for changes before the program is reintroduced in schools. One flaw that McDermott frequently points out is that the anus is referred to as genitalia (those aren’t words I ever saw myself writing, by the way). Genitalia refers specifically to reproductive organs, which that particular orifice is not. It’s a part of the gastro-intestinal tract.

Pono Choices became a political issue during the same-sex marriage debates, when parent after parent — opponents of gay marriage — complained that the sexual education curriculum treats homosexual relations equal to heterosexual relations. One exercise even points to a gay couple as a healthy relationship, while two other heterosexual relationships were labeled unhealthy — though even McDermott agrees that the hetero examples were, in fact, unhealthy and in one case abusive.

McDermott estimates that he and his like-minded peers got about 70 percent of what they wanted for the program. He believes that no parent would ever put their prepubescent middle-schooler into the program after all the negative attention it’s received. “It’s not a program bereft of values,” he said. “It’s a program with negative values.”

He maintains that the program teaches students that homosexuality is on par with heterosexuality, adding, “It misrepresents the frequency of homosexual behavior, thereby inculcating our children with a new set of values that are not the same as their parents.”

Many civil rights advocates would call this progress. Conservatives like McDermott call it social engineering. “We’re educating these kids subliminally. (Homosexuality) is a statistical aberration using (Centers for Disease Control) numbers.”

“It’s a progressive, leftist social engineering package,” McDermott says of Pono Choices.

When McDermott introduced a measure last legislative session to make what he says were specific and succinct changes to Pono Choices, all seven Republicans in the House voted in favor of it. All the 44 Democrats voted it down.

It could prove interesting to see if people vote for or against Pono Choices-related candidates along these party lines or if people have moved onto other issues in who they next elect.