LONGSHOT: Lured by new grant, some states reject abstinence-only funding

Liz Goodwin

At least four states with some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation and a history of taking millions of dollars in federal abstinence-only education grants will probably not be applying for the funds this year.

Arkansas, Illinois, Oklahoma and Hawaii — which ranked among the 20 states with the highest teen pregnancy rates  in 2005 — will instead apply for a new stream of federal funding to teach comprehensive sex ed.

Collectively, the four states received over $20 million in abstinence-only education funds in 2008.

The Upshot contacted the health departments of 15 states that accepted Title V abstinence-only funds in 2008  and are ranked in the top 20 states for teen pregnancy. Twelve of them responded, though Texas' declined to say which funding stream they were applying for.

President Obama has shifted the focus of sex education away from abstinence-only since taking office, discontinuing two separate federal funding streams for abstinence-only education after a congressionally mandated independent study showed that several abstinence-only programs were not effective at preventing sexual activity among youth.

Congress reauthorized the Title V abstinence-only funds during the health care debate this year in a bargaining move. Now, $50 million in abstinence-only funding is available for states each year for five years, significantly less than the federal outlays for the program in previous years.

The health care debate also saw the creation of the Personal Responsibility Education Program, which emphasizes abstinence and contraceptives equally, and is dedicated to providing "medically accurate" information about sex to people ages 10 to 20.

Arkansas Health Department spokesman Ed Barham says his agency isn't planning to apply for Title V abstinence-only funds, because the grant requires a state match of $3 for every $4 of federal grant money. PREP funds are free for states — a powerful incentive to apply.

Oklahoma's Health Department decided not to apply for the funds based on a growing body of evidence suggesting that abstinence-only education is not effective, according to the agency's Linsey Garlington.

Spokeswomen at both Hawaii and Illinois' departments of health confirmed that the states will be applying for the PREP grant. They say their agencies are still deliberating on whether  to apply for the abstinence-only funds. The application deadline is Aug. 30.

Of the states that The Upshot contacted plan to apply for both grants, most of them — Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arizona — will apply for both funding streams. Tennessee rejected Title V abstinence funds last year but received $4.6 million in abstinence-only funds from another stream, since discontinued.

PREP, along with Obama's teen pregnancy prevention initiative, is the first dedicated federal funding stream for sex education that focuses on both contraception and abstinence to prevent pregnancy and disease. Among other new educational directives, PREP encourages educators to consider the needs of youth who may be gay.

Some states applying for PREP funds have laws on how sex ed can be taught that clash with PREP guidelines. It's not clear how the new approach will play out in those school systems.

A 1992 Alabama law, for example, says sex-education classes should teach that "homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public" and that "abstinence from sexual intercourse outside of lawful marriage is the expected social standard for unmarried school-age persons." A PREP-funded program would include neither of these points of instruction.

And South Carolina law says that sex-ed students may receive information about contraceptives only in the context of "future family planning," whereas PREP programs focus equally on abstinence and contraception.

Educators following PREP guidelines are not allowed to adopt a moral tone about waiting for marriage to have sex.

Some states say the PREP funds will not end up in classrooms — potentially sidestepping some former high-profile clashes with parents over sex education.

Barham said no PREP funds will end up in Arkansas classrooms, since private organizations, not school districts, will apply for and use the money to teach after-school programs.

Ohio, which took $4.9 million in abstinence-only money in 2009, has decided not to apply for Title V grant funding, either. A spokeswoman says the PREP grant will be used for "youth in foster care" and the juvenile justice system, not for the state's schools.

In the past, Title V abstinence-only money has often ended up in state classrooms.

"We do know that it's common for the funding to trickle down into the public school system either by a school district applying to the state government or community-based organizations that apply to their state government then end up in the public school system, often times saying we can offer a free program," said Jennifer Heitel Yakush, director for public policy at the nonprofit Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The group supports comprehensive sex ed.

Yakush said the $1.5 billion in federal money for abstinence-only programs disbursed to the states over the past 20 years has shaped state laws about sex education to favor abstinence, even though independent research has shown that abstinence-only programs don't work.

"We know that when federal funding is available, states, especially in tight budget times, reach out for whatever funding is available. We've seen this money trickle down, infuse states, impact state laws," she said.

Some of the states applying for both funding streams might use the abstinence-only funds on younger children and the PREP funds for older students. A recent study of a program that emphasized abstinence among sixth- and seventh-graders showed that it successfully encouraged kids to delay sex and had no negative effect on later condom use. But the program did not take a moral tone about sex outside of marriage, and instead encouraged kids to wait until they were "ready" to have sex — an approach that differs from many abstinence-only programs.

Kentucky official Gwenda Bond said the state plans to use abstinence-only funding in the fifth through eighth grades, while PREP funds would go to teaching older kids.

Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association says states should accept both PREP and abstinence-only funds to combine risk-avoidance and risk-reduction approaches to safe sex.

"I can't think of any reason why [states] would not accept Title V other than to make a political statement that ignores the best risk-avoidance message of abstinence-centered education," she wrote in an e-mail.

Huber says she expects more states to apply for abstinence funds this year than last year, and said the matching-funds cost can be paid by the organizations that take the funding instead of the state's budget.

But Yakush said she's glad Arkansas, Oklahoma and Ohio are phasing out abstinence-only education.

"We're wasting taxpayer dollars on programs that the federal government's own studies say don't work," Yakush said. "This will finally provide them with the information they need to be healthy and make informed decisions."

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