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Rutgers-Eagleton poll: New Jerseyans broadly support sex ed, but less so in lower grades

State’s sex ed curriculum has been major issue since the spring

By Joey Fox, September 21 2022 6:00 am

A new poll released this morning by the Rutgers Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling found that New Jerseyans are generally in favor of sex education in the state’s schools, but want there to be an opt-out option (which there currently is) and are split on whether it should be taught to elementary school students.

88% of the poll’s respondents said they favored having “health and sexual education” taught to high school students, and 71% said they support it for middle school students. Only 46%, however, said that they support it for students in elementary school, to 51% opposed.

Half of the poll’s respondents had the phrase “age-appropriate” inserted into the question while the other half did not; those who heard the phrase were modestly more likely to support sex ed in elementary school, but the addition of the phrase made little difference for the other grade levels.

As for the ability to opt out, 60% indicated support for “the option of keeping their children out of health and sexual education classes,” which the state’s public schools currently have, while 37% said sex ed should be mandatory. Parents were significantly more likely to support the ability to opt-out: 70% were in support, versus 56% among non-parents.

Rutgers-Eagleton Poll director Ashley Koning noted that sex ed, alongside the parallel issue of sexuality- and gender-related instruction in non-sex ed classes, has been an important issue in New Jersey politics this year, with many conservatives declaring the state’s curriculum to be inappropriate and even “pornographic.”

“Sex ed has become a major flashpoint this year in New Jersey, especially now as midterm elections approach,” Koning said. “Yet, according to these numbers, those who have been most vocal in New Jersey do not necessarily reflect a majority of residents’ – or even parents’ – views.”

Republican messaging does align with at least one group, however: Republicans. Among respondents who identified as Republicans, 83% said they oppose teaching sex ed in elementary school and 55% said they oppose it in middle school, though 70% still said they supported teaching it in high school.

A key conservative talking point has been increasing transparency and local control over curricula, but 63% of respondents said they wanted the sex ed curriculum to be the same throughout the state, versus just 33% who said it should be left up to individual districts.

Several Republicans running for Congress this year have utilized the issue in their campaign material, among them 3rd district candidate Bob Healey Jr., who released a digital ad earlier this month accusing Rep. Andy Kim (D-Moorestown) of having a “radical back-to-school agenda.” 

The races where such issues will likely have the largest impact, however, are for seats on school boards, of which the state has nearly 600. Like they are throughout the country, conservatives in New Jersey are seeking to use sex ed issues to win school board seats, though the Rutgers-Eagleton numbers indicate they may run into difficulties in most of the state.

“It remains to be seen who can use this issue more effectively to rally their base and get voters to turn out for Election Day,” Koning said. “While public support for parental choice bodes well for Republicans, general favorability toward teaching sex ed – and the support for it from independents, in particular – does not.”

The Rutgers-Eagleton poll was conducted from August 30-September 8 with a sample size of 1,006 New Jersey adults and a margin of error of +/- 3.8%.

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