President’s Veto Kills Dems’ Ab-Only Fix

Wendy Norris

In one fell swoop, President Bush tells children he won't ensure they receive health care - but he will make sure they're at risk for sexually transmitted infections as a result of the abstinence-only programs his administration will continue to fund.

Proponents of comprehensive sex education scored a small victory yesterday when the U.S. Senate stripped a $100 million provision to fund a controversial abstinence-only grant program that was tacked onto the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) bill.

But the celebration will be short-lived as President Bush renewed his vow late Friday to veto the compromise bill that extends health care coverage to more children.

The SCHIP bill add-on, known by its none-descript name Title V, Section 510, is one of three established federal funding streams for abstinence-only programs and the only one in which states have decision-making authority on grantees. The other two money pots — Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) and Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) — are direct federal grants to school districts, health departments, and nonprofit organizations and are not affected by the Senate's action.

While Congress wrangled with the federal budget over the summer, the Title V program was re-upped on an emergency 3-month basis through September 30. In the meantime, the program funding renewal was slipped into an early House version of SCHIP, which was also hotly contested. The reauthorization would have provided a pool of $50 million each in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 for states to distribute to community-based abstinence programs.

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Reproductive health advocates condemned the funding proposal as throwing good money at bad programs that endanger young people's lives with inaccurate information and heavy-handed moralizing.

However, the add-on also attempted to deal with some of those serious shortcomings by requiring medically and scientifically accurate curricula, broadening the lessons to include discussions on birth control methods, and mandating that the programs prove they reduce pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS rates.

The new guidelines were designed to counterbalance political interference with the program by Bush Administration appointees.

In 2005, the White House shifted oversight of Title V from the Maternal and Child Health bureau to the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, which Advocates for Youth calls a more ideologically conservative division of the Department of Health and Human Services.

That shift also meant that newly funded Title V programs must adhere to a strict eight-point definition of abstinence education that reflects ultra-conservative viewpoints and minimizes accepted public health and social science research. Consequently, eight states (California, Connecticut, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wisconsin) have refused millions of dollars in federal funds rather than capitulate to non-scientific standards and ignore the need to provide contraception information to young people.

Red tape and bureaucratic bullying aside, abstinence-only programs have also begun to fall out of favor.

Recent independent analyses of abstinence-only programs by the Government Accountability Office, Mathematica Policy Research [PDF] and others have repeatedly found grim problems in the programs' touted effectiveness — from a lack of scientifically-accurate curriculum, little oversight, and the inability to demonstrate a direct, causal reduction in teen sexual activity. A first-of-its-kind study of teenagers also found widely varying views on abstinence and virginity in stark contrast to the messages intended.

But those criticisms haven't put much of a dent in lawmakers with a penchant for pandering to conservative voters.

Since 1982, Congress has appropriated an estimated $1.5 billion for abstinence-only programs that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan) describes as "a colossal failure." Dingell's committee co-chair Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) said during an interview on Marketplace in July:

Abstinence-only education doesn't work. A number of studies, as well as common sense, have shown that over the years. So Congress is pouring millions of dollars into this program that's just a waste of money.

Earlier in the spring, Dingell and DeGette successfully eliminated Title V funding from a spending bill before their committee.

But to the great consternation of comprehensive sex education proponents, Title V's sister program, Community-Based Abstinence Education, received a large cash infusion from the House Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations to the tune of $141 million, a 25 percent increase over last year's budget. Rep. David Obey (D-WI), who serves as the subcommittee chair and leads the powerful House Appropriations Committee, argued that the move was a necessary evil to placate conservative lawmakers in order to make the larger spending bill veto-proof.

So in essence, the current de-funding of Title V may have little effect on federal financial support of abstinence-only education while effectively eliminating the states' only direct avenue for approving and supervising the no-sex-until-marriage curricula presented by grantees to young citizens.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

News Law and Policy

Court Blocks North Carolina’s ‘Discriminatory’ Voter ID Law

Imani Gandy

“[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision," Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court, describing the North Carolina GOP's voter ID law.

A unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down North Carolina’s elections law, holding that the Republican-held legislature had enacted the law with discriminatory intent to burden Black voters and that it therefore violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The ruling marks the latest defeat of voter ID laws passed by GOP-majority legislatures across the country.

“We can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent,” Circuit Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the court.

HB 589 required in-person voters to show certain types of photo ID beginning in 2016, and either curtailed or reduced registration and voting access tools that Black voters disproportionately used, including an early voting period. Black voters also disproportionately lack photo IDs.

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Republicans claimed that the law was intended to protect against voter fraud, which has proven exceedingly rare in Republican-led investigations. But voting rights advocates argue that the law was intended to disenfranchise Black and Latino voters.

The ruling marks a dramatic reversal of fortune for the U.S. Justice Department, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, and the League of Women Voters, which had asked the Fourth Circuit to review a lower court ruling against them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder in April ruled that plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that the law hindered Black voters’ ability to exercise political power.

The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

“In holding that the legislature did not enact the challenged provisions with discriminatory intent, the court seems to have missed the forest in carefully surveying the many trees,” Motz wrote. “This failure of perspective led the court to ignore critical facts bearing on legislative intent, including the inextricable link between race and politics in North Carolina.”

The Fourth Circuit noted that the Republican-dominated legislature passed the law in 2013, immediately following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby v. Holder, which struck a key provision in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 4 is the coverage formula used to determine which states must get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or the District Court for the District of Columbia before making any changes to election laws.

The day after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee announced the North Carolina legislature’s intention to enact an “omnibus” election law, the appeals court noted. Before enacting the law, however, the Republican-dominated legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices.

After receipt of the race data, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting and registration, all of which disproportionately burdened Black voters.

“In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its actions, the State offered only meager justifications,” Motz continued. “[T]he new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The ruling comes a day after the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays, gave a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention that brought convention goers to their feet.

During a protest on the first day of the trial, Barber told a crowd of about 3,500 people, “this is our Selma.”