Why Isn’t Sen. Coburn Going After THIS Wasteful Spending?

William Smith

The showdown in the Senate over the remaining Fiscal Year 2009 appropriations has members of the Republican party clamoring to cut spending. So why don't they go after wasteful abstinence-only earmarks?

It
is a great irony that the same party that had watch over creating the
deep recession in which we find ourselves – largely through excessive
spending, particularly on the grand flight of neo-conservative fancy to
export and re-plant democracy – now seems set to reclaim their
discredited reputation and once again try to dupe the American public
by saying they are fiscal conservatives.  What rubbish.

Still,
the showdown in the Senate over the remaining Fiscal Year 2009
appropriations has certain members of the Republican party clamoring to
cut spending.  Senator McCain (R-AZ), for example, sought to have the
entire appropriations bill set aside and allow programs to continue at
Fiscal Year 2008 levels.  That is the same backward thinking that lost
him the election.  And the ever reliable Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK),
always seeking to pass judgment on what he sees as "acceptable" public
expenditures, is seeking support for a series of amendments to cut
"wasteful" spending.

Noticeably
absent from Coburn or McCain’s list of suggested cuts is the failed
abstinence-only-until-marriage funding that remains in the bill.  True,
this bill cuts the current funding by just over $14 million dollars –
the first cut to these programs in American history – but a whopping
$95 million remains.  Expectations are high that President Obama’s
budget will provide the leadership that zeroes out these funds for
Fiscal Year 2010, but we have to get through 2009 first.

If
Coburn and the rest of the crew are serious about cutting wasteful
spending, why not start with the abstinence-only-until-marriage
earmarks in the bill sponsored by Senator Specter, a fellow Republican
from Pennsylvania.  Yes, the same party that is crying about wasteful
spending is not only not going after the failed
abstinence-only-until-marriage money that is regularly in the bill, but
even the earmarks for these programs in the bill seem to be escaping
their attention.

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Senator
Specter has more than a half-million dollars of
abstinence-only-until-marriage earmarks in the bill for projects in his
home state.  It is no wonder that these dollars escape scrutiny. 
Abstinence-only-until-marriage money remains a vestige for funneling
money to the extreme right wing and in this case, including those who
strangely enough oppose Senator Specter’s moderate record on
reproductive health issues.

For
example, two of the intended recipients of these earmarks are for
extreme right-wing crisis pregnancy centers: Tender Care Pregnancy
Center in Hanover, Pennsylvania and Women’s Care Center of Erie
County.  A quick review of the latter’s website (www.wccerie.org)
reveals the same sensationalist and deceptive anti-choice rhetoric and
scare tactics that have become a hallmark of the agenda of these
abstinence-only-until-marriage providers.

But
the big question beyond the failed folly of what these dollars fund is
why Senator Coburn and his colleagues seem so fit to pass judgment on
certain spending projects but not on their own pet programs.  Why
should we turn a blind eye to the inconsistency of their posturing when
they throw an additional $528,000 into the bill, in pork-laden earmarks
nonetheless, for failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs?  We
shouldn’t.

It
would be laughable if not so tragic because in this case – it is about
young people and their health and lives.   But moreover, it is an
indication that Senator Coburn and his ilk still did not get the memo
on the change the American people are seeking and that these
disingenuous attempts to regain the banner of fiscal conservativism
should not be allowed to stick.  Fiscal conservatism is a principled
stand, but where it is put into service to wield ideologically
motivated mischief, as it is in this case, the real bearers of the
principle should come forward and send the charlatans to the back bench.

Commentary Sexual Health

Fewer Young People Are Getting Formal Sex Education, But Can a New Federal Bill Change That?

Martha Kempner

Though the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act has little chance of passing Congress, its inclusive and evidence-based approach is a much-needed antidote to years of publicly funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which may have contributed to troubling declines in youth knowledge about sexual and reproductive health.

Recent research from the Guttmacher Institute finds there have been significant changes in sexuality education during the last decade—and not for the better.

Fewer young people are receiving “formal sex education,” meaning classes that take place in schools, youth centers, churches, or community settings. And parents are not necessarily picking up the slack. This does not surprise sexuality education advocates, who say shrinking resources and restrictive public policies have pushed comprehensive programs—ones that address sexual health and contraception, among other topics—out of the classroom, while continued funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs has allowed uninformative ones to remain.

But just a week before this research was released in April, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA). If passed, REHYA would allocate federal funding for accurate, unbiased sexuality education programs that meet strict content requirements. More importantly, it would lay out a vision of what sexuality education could and should be.

Can this act ensure that more young people get high-quality sexuality education?

In the short term: No. Based on the track record of our current Congress, it has little chance of passing. But in the long run, absolutely.

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Less Sexuality Education Today

The Guttmacher Institute’s new study compared data from two rounds of a national survey in the years 2006-2010 and 2011-2013. It found that even the least controversial topics in sex education—sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV and AIDS—are taught less today than a few years ago. The proportion of young women taught about STDs declined from 94 percent to 90 percent between the two time periods, and young women taught about HIV and AIDS declined from 89 percent to 86 percent during the same period.

While it may seem like a lot of young people are still learning about these potential consequences of unprotected sex, few are learning how to prevent them. In the 2011-2013 survey, only 50 percent of teen girls and 58 percent of teen boys had received formal instruction about how to use a condom before they turned 18. And the percentage of teens who reported receiving formal education about birth control in general decreased from 70 percent to 60 percent among girls and from 61 percent to 55 percent among boys.

One of the only things that did increase was the percentage of teen girls (from 22 percent to 28 percent) and boys (from 29 to 35 percent) who said they got instruction on “how to say no to sex”—but no corresponding instruction on birth control.

Unfortunately, many parents do not appear to be stepping in to fill the gap left by formal education. The study found that while there’s been a decline in formal education, there has been little change in the number of kids who say they’ve spoken to their parents about birth control.

Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, told Rewire that this can lead to a dangerous situation: “In the face of declining formal education and little discussion from their parents, young people are left to fend for themselves, often turning to their friends or the internet-either of which can be fraught with trouble.”

The study makes it very clear that we are leaving young people unprepared to make responsible decisions about sex. When they do receive education, it isn’t always timely: It found that in 2011-2013, 43 percent of teen females and 57 percent of teen males did not receive information about birth control before they had sex for the first time.

It could be tempting to argue that the situation is not actually dire because teen pregnancy rates are at a historic low, potentially suggesting that young people can make do without formal sex education or even parental advice. Such an argument would be a mistake. Teen pregnancy rates are dropping for a variety of reasons, but mostly because because teens are using contraception more frequently and more effectively. And while that is great news, it is insufficient.

Our goals in providing sex education have to go farther than getting young people to their 18th or 21st birthday without a pregnancy. We should be working to ensure that young people grow up to be sexually healthy adults who have safe and satisfying relationships for their whole lives.

But for anyone who needs an alarming statistic to prove that comprehensive sex education is still necessary, here’s one: Adolescents make up just one quarter of the population, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate they account for more than half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that occur each year in this country.

The Real Education for Healthy Youth Act

The best news about the REHYA is that it takes a very broad approach to sexuality education, provides a noble vision of what young people should learn, and seems to understand that changes should take place not just in K-12 education but through professional development opportunities as well.

As Advocates for Youth explains, if passed, REHYA would be the first federal legislation to ever recognize young people’s right to sexual health information. It would allocate funding for education that includes a wide range of topics, including communication and decision-making skills; safe and healthy relationships; and preventing unintended pregnancy, HIV, other STIs, dating violence, sexual assault, bullying, and harassment.

In addition, it would require all funded programs to be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and to meet the needs of young people who are sexually active as well as those who are not. The grants could also be used for adolescents and young adults in institutes of higher education. Finally, the bill recognizes the importance of teacher training and provides resources to prepare sex education instructors.

If we look at the federal government’s role as leading by example, then REHYA is a great start. It sets forth a plan, starts a conversation, and moves us away from decades of focusing on disproven abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In fact, one of the fun parts of this new bill is that it diverts funding from the Title V program, which received $75 million dollars in Fiscal Year 2016. That funding has supported programs that stick to a strict eight-point definition of “abstinence education” (often called the “A-H definition”) that, among other things, tells young people that sex outside of marriage is against societal norms and likely to have harmful physical and psychological effects.

The federal government does not make rules on what can and cannot be taught in classrooms outside of those programs it funds. Broad decisions about topics are made by each state, while more granular decisions—such as what curriculum to use or videos to show—are made by local school districts. But the growth of the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach and the industry that spread it, researchers say, was partially due to federal funding and the government’s “stamp of approval.”

Heather Boonstra, director of public policy at the Guttmacher Institute and a co-author of its study, told Rewire: “My sense is that [government endorsement] really spurred the proliferation of a whole industry and gave legitimacy—and still does—to this very narrow approach.”

The money—$1.5 billion total between 1996 and 2010—was, of course, at the heart of a lot of that growth. School districts, community-based organizations, and faith-based institutions created programs using federal and state money. And a network of abstinence-only-until-marriage organizations grew up to provide the curricula and materials these programs needed. But the reach was broader than that: A number of states changed the rules governing sex education to insist that schools stress abstinence. Some even quoted all or part of the A-H definition in their state laws.

REHYA would provide less money to comprehensive education than the abstinence-only-until-marriage funding streams did to their respective programs, but most advocates agree that it is important nonetheless. As Jesseca Boyer, vice president at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), told Rewire, “It establishes a vision of what the government could do in terms of supporting sex education.”

Boonstra noted that by providing the model for good programs and some money that would help organizations develop materials for those programs, REHYA could have a broader reach than just the programs it would directly fund.

The advocates Rewire spoke with agree on something else, as well: REHYA has very little chance of passing in this Congress. But they’re not deterred. Even if it doesn’t become law this year, or next, it is moving the pendulum back toward the comprehensive approach to sex education that our young people need.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify Jesseca Boyer’s position at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

Commentary Sexual Health

South Carolina Mom Shows Homophobic Sex Education Isn’t a Thing of the Past

Martha Kempner

A mom in South Carolina was shocked to learn that what young people in her state hear about homosexuality in schools is biased, intolerant, and downright homophobic. But her state is not alone: At least eight states have laws that require teachers to present biased information about same-sex relationships.

This summer, the country made great strides in the fight for LGBTQ rights as the U.S. Supreme Court declared state same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Yet as the school year started, one mother in South Carolina was shocked to learn that what young people in her state hear about homosexuality in public schools is biased, intolerant, and downright prejudiced. She is now working with advocates to overturn the decades-old law that requires teachers to present this skewed information. But South Carolina is not alone: At least eight states have similar laws.

While we celebrate all the progress we’ve made in securing marriage equality for same-sex couples, we can’t let ourselves believe that the struggle for LGBTQ rights is over or that homophobia is a thing of the past, including in our school systems. Parents and advocates need to take a close look at what children in their states will be learning this year and work both to remove these outdated and unfair laws, and to help their children learn accurate and unbiased information in the meantime. 

Such was the case with Marie-Louise Ramsdale, whose daughter attends Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. According to the Post and Courier, like other high school students scheduled to receive sexuality education, she brought home a letter at the start of the academic year from a health teacher designed to inform parents of what was going to be taught and let them know that they could “opt out” of the class if they objected to its content. The letter explained:

The program of instruction for this unit may not include discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted infections.

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Ramsdale, who is an attorney, told the Post and Courier: “I’m very concerned about the message it sends to children in the schools who may be gay, not by choice, but by birth. I’m concerned that it promotes homophobia, and I’m equally as concerned that they’re teaching a curriculum that violates the U.S. Constitution,” in the sense that the state is attempting to restrict individuals’ First Amendment rights.

The letter actually quotes the state law regarding sexuality education. South Carolina requires that between ninth and 12th grade, students receive at least 750 minutes of “reproductive health education” and pregnancy prevention education. The law defines this as instruction in human physiology, conception, prenatal care and development, childbirth, and postnatal care. According to the law, however, such education does not include “instruction concerning sexual practices outside marriage or practices unrelated to reproduction, except within the context of the risk of disease. Abstinence and the risks associated with sexual activity outside of marriage must be strongly emphasized.”

When the law was written in 1988, only heterosexual couples could get married—so all abstinence-until-marriage messages would have, by nature, excluded gay or lesbian students and suggested by extension that all same-sex behavior was wrong because those couples could never get married. But the message in South Carolina is worse than just exclusion. By leaving same-sex couples out of discussions of healthy sexual relationships but including them in the discussion on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), young people are essentially being told that gay people are nothing more than disease vectors: a false and dangerous stereotype that arose during the height of the HIV epidemic. This biased message could have a devastating impact on students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning their orientation, as well as students who are being raised by parents in a same-sex relationship.

Ramsdale has taken her concerns to the State Board of Education. In addition, she has also contacted Colleen Condon, a Mount Pleasant city council member who successfully challenged South Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban as a plaintiff in 2014. Condon agreed the law is troubling, asking the Post and Courier: “Are we trying to encourage young gay teens to believe there is something aberrant about their decisions?”

The two have since been working with the South Carolina Equality Litigation Post-DOMA Task Force, which was formed after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. The task force is now launching an investigation into what districts across the state are teaching in the hopes of overturning South Carolina’s law.

Unfortunately, students in South Carolina are not the only ones who will hear such information in school. In Arizona, schools are not required to teach about sexuality at all. If they choose to address it, however, the instruction must be medically accurate but cannot promote a “homosexual lifestyle,” portray “homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle,” or “suggest that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”

Of course, this is impossible: A medically accurate course would actually explain that when it comes to HIV transmission, certain behaviors carry more risks than others. Unprotected anal sex, for example, is very risky for the receptive partner; performing oral sex on a woman, by contrast, is less risky. The genders involved do not make a difference.

Alabama’s law is even more inflammatory. It requires sexuality education to “emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

This statement is horrifyingly wrong from a number of angles. First, public health experts do not tend to use “acceptable” as a test as to whether something is likely to keep a population safe. Second, there is no difference from a public health perspective between same-sex and opposite-sex couples, as long as everyone takes precautions to prevent STIs and unintended pregnancy. Moreover, though it once might have been unfortunately true that homosexuality was not “accepted” by the general public—and, as these laws demonstrate, pockets of discrimination linger throughout the country—this is thankfully no longer the case. A Gallup poll conducted in May 2015 found that 60 percent of adults thought marriages between individuals of the same sex should be valid and have the same rights as those between opposite-sex couples. And, finally, laws criminalizing homosexual behavior were declared unconstitutional over a decade ago in the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas.

Policies like these, which propagate fears and damaging stereotypes, are a vital reminder that the struggle for LGBTQ rights and equality did not end with this summer’s Supreme Court decision. Young people—whether they are gay or not—should not be told that homosexuality is unacceptable, dangerous, and illegal. And the effect of these laws extend beyond sex-ed curricula: In fact, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that LGBTQ students in states with stigmatizing laws were more likely to hear homophobic remarks from school staff, less likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff, and less likely to report having support from educators.

These classes also represent a tremendous missed opportunity. Ideally, sex-ed classrooms should be a place in which students can learn what sexual orientation is, how individuals come to understand their own sexual orientation, and what we can all do to respect each other’s choices and identities. This kind of critical thinking about sexual orientation is necessary, not just to help those students who are LGBTQ or questioning their sexuality, but to help us all move toward a future free of homophobia and discrimination.  

To combat this continuing campaign of misinformation, parents should find out what is being taught in their child’s school and, like Ramsdale, should fight if the curriculum is biased. States and localities have made strides when challenged—the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota, for example, changed its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy after being sued by several students who claimed it fostered an unsafe environment.

In the meantime, while educators’ hands are still tied in certain states and they are forced to provide misinformation, parents should remain invested in the lessons their children are learning. If those lessons are propagating homophobia, it’s up to parents to correct that inaccuracy at home.