The North Carolina Board of Education recently voted to approve updates to the Healthful Living Standards for K-12 public schools, but some conservatives are wary of adjustments to the sex education components of the standards.

North Carolina law requires school districts to “[t]each that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school‑age children” whenever they provide instruction about reproductive health and safety.

State statute also requires teaching “that a mutually faithful monogamous heterosexual relationship in the context of marriage is the best lifelong means of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.”

The new standards, approved by the State Board on June 6, still place the emphasis on abstinence from sexual activity for teens. They also contain information on US Food and Drug Administration-approved forms of contraception and “safer sex” options. The only member of the board to vote against the new standards was Olivia Oxendine, who said the abstinence standards were not strong enough.

“The State Board of Education has failed North Carolina’s children by adopting standards for teaching sex education in all of our public schools that promote the teaching of ‘safer sex’ techniques while minimizing the risk of pregnancy and STDs, and that fail to teach abstinence from sexual activity as an expected standard of behavior for all school-aged children, as our sex education law requires,” said Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, in a statement.

“Not only did they ignore the law, but they ignored lawmakers and hundreds of citizens who submitted public comments. These standards send a confusing message to children about sex and will escalate sexual activity, pregnancy and STD rates and will give the Planned Parenthood types a front row seat in teaching our children about sexuality,” Fitzgerald added.

Kaitlyn Shepherd, a policy analyst for the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation, noted that the revised standards do contain some positive elements. For one, they encourage the key role that parents play in providing health-related information to their children. The standards also do not address sexual orientation or transgender issues.

But Shepherd said that the combination of teaching abstinence alongside instruction in “safer sex” practices is problematic. “References to premarital abstinence come across as empty platitudes that merely pay lip service to the legislative intent expressed in statute,” she said.

Districts and teachers must align their lessons with state standards, but they can choose the curriculum and instructional methods used to achieve the objectives prescribed in the standards. For example, state statute allows local boards of education to develop parental-consent policies in line with receiving information on contraceptives and abortion referrals. The statute does note that “contraceptives, including condoms and other devices, shall not be made available or distributed on school property.”

The state law additionally requires the involvement of parents: “Local boards of education shall adopt policies to provide opportunities either for parents and legal guardians to consent or for parents and legal guardians to withhold their consent to the students’ participation in any or all of these programs.”