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What Happens When States Say No to Abstinence-Only Education?

Rejecting abstinence-only funding is only one part of the movement to empower young people. There's much more to do.

The numbers have reached a tipping point: 25 states have rejected federal Title V funds for abstinence-only programs, including traditionally conservative states such as Wyoming and Alaska. And eighty percent of them said no because of research revealing that the ineffectiveness of ab-only programs puts U.S. teenagers at risk, says the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States (SEICUS). Citing the same evidence, individual school districts from Cleveland to Washington, D.C., are rejecting financial bribes to teach an abstinence-only curriculum in favor of a more comprehensive curriculum.

No doubt this is reason to cheer. But rejecting abstinence-only funding is only one part of the movement to educate and empower young people; we also need to pro-actively normalize comprehensive, medically-accurate sexuality education in American schools.

"Turning back ab-only funds won't stop ab-only teaching," said Bill Smith, SEICUS vice president for public policy. "At least, it's not a guarantee."

Despite the momentum against ab-only funds, Smith said that there hasn't been a proportional uptick in comprehensive sex ed programs -- and there won't be one if there continues to be no federal investment. Ab-only curricula took their hold in U.S. classrooms precisely because of the strong funding structure for those programs, Smith said.  It's not merely the absence of ab-only funding that will translate into comprehensive sex ed programs; rather, comprehensive programs need a strong funding structure of their own in order to be normalized. After all, up-to-date and accurate textbooks and teacher training don't come free even to the most well-intentioned school districts.

While the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and Pittsburgh Public Schools are among the relatively few districts that are finding ways to support more comprehensive sex education, the question is: how much more comprehensive are they? Are the sex ed programs in these pioneering districts truly medically accurate and age appropriate? Or do alternative funding and curriculum models carry their own set of restrictions and limitations?

The Cleveland Model

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District launched a K-12 comprehensive program in 2006, a program that Smith points to as "probably further advanced and more progressive" than any other in the country.

It started in 2006 when Cuyahoga County leaders decided to re-allocate TANF and City of Cleveland dollars away from an abstinence-only curriculum and towards a comprehensive one. County commissioners made the shift as a response to community leaders and parents who showed them the evidence of the link between the district's ab-only program and the county's troubling health statistics.

"That was a leadership position the county took," said Laureen Tews Harbert, program director of Cleveland's AIDS Funding Collaborative.

The more comprehensive curriculum was funded almost entirely by TANF dollars in its first year, according to Marsha Egbert, senior program officer of The George Gund Foundation, a Cleveland-based private nonprofit that provides operating support for the new curriculum. But CMSD couldn't rely on TANF: it only had three years of support that incrementally diminished each year. The three-year window for TANF funding expired in December 2008.

"The short term time frame on the TANF support accelerated our effort to bring support for the program fully in house," said Egbert.

CMSD evolved its model into one of diversified funding, including private support, and internal capacity.

"At first, we delegated the sex ed teaching to outside, specially-designated professionals responsible for this course alone," Harbert said. "That was costly. The model evolved, with a concerted effort, to train health and PE teachers to be responsible for the bulk of the curriculum."

Training existing staff makes CMSD's sex education a more sustainable model, Harbert added.

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