Getting Past No: What Happens Once Schools Turn Down Ab-Only?

Anna Clark

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.

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

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

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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

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.

Further, CMSD replaced lower TANF funds with support from
The George Gund Foundation and The Cleveland Foundation. CMSD also partners with
Harbert’s AIDS Funding Collaborative for the annual evaluation of the new
curriculum. The City of Cleveland continues to provide funding as well through
community development block grants.

"Having a variety of funders who have a stake in the program
speaks well for its future success and the community buy-in," Harbert said. "At
the same time, building our internal capacity for comprehensive sex ed makes us
more sustainable because we’re less dependent on outside support."

So what does Cleveland’s program look like? Is it really

Formally called the Responsible Sexual Behavior Education
Initiative, the Cleveland model appears to be one of the only K-12 integrated
sex education programs (that is, a program that builds on each previous year),
if it’s not the only. According to
Egbert, the curriculum includes information about contraceptive use, sexually
transmitted diseases, and a "tremendous amount on emotional and social
development, including refusal skills and negotiation skills. That to me is a
critical part. Students can get the facts, but it’s important to teach ways for
them to make the facts work in their lives."

As well, the Cleveland program partners with the nonprofit
Scenarios USA, which uses scriptwriting and film to "capture the voices of
reproductive health and sex topics," Egbert said. Fifteen million people each year see the short films from
Scenarios USA at film festivals, in schools, and on television.

How, though, is the Responsible Sexual Behavior Initiative

Philliber Research Associates, the external evaluator of the
effectiveness of Cleveland’s sexuality education, indicates in its 2007-2008
report that the program reached 26,326 K-12 students. Health and PE teachers
newly trained for sexuality education were rated highly for their abilities to
teach about dating, gender roles, HIV/STDs prevention, reproductive anatomy,
decision-making skills, puberty, and pregnancy prevention.

However, those same teachers were rated as "least able to
teach" about community resources, sexual abuse prevention, and sexual
orientations. They also were described as "less comfortable discussing" condom
use, sexual intercourse, and sexual orientation with students.

The evaluation also indicates that after participating in
the new Cleveland curriculum, significantly more students disagreed
with the statements, "I would have sex with someone even if I really don’t want
to" and "If a partner refused to wear a condom, I would probably give in and
have sex with him/her."

Compared to students who hadn’t yet participated in the
programs, those who participated in Cleveland’s sexuality education showed
significantly improved knowledge and skill sets across all grade levels.

"There’s still a lot of work to be done" in making the
program fully comprehensive, said Egbert. "Particularly in making the different
parts of the program mesh. But we’re committed to improving the program each

Such a commitment is wonderful news for Cleveland, and
especially the city’s young people. But what stands out is the rarity of its
curriculum. Even with its gaps, there is no other one like it in the
nation-even in those school districts that are re-evaluating ab-only funding
and programs. Egbert noted that when Cleveland first set out to develop its
K-12 comprehensive curriculum, it found no models existed-not in school-based
forms that were rigorously evaluated, at least.

Piecing Together Models

Harbert noted that Cleveland’s K-12 curriculum for
age-appropriate sex education was so uncommon, administrators had to piece
together a new model based on four different model curriculums to create one
that was evidence-based and age-appropriate.

"It does seem like we’ve received a number of inquiries from
other school districts about our model," Harbert said. "Our research shows
we’re pretty unique in offering this – there’s just not a lot of models out

Curriculum for any school district is accepted or rejected
by the school district. According to Howell, districts often hire someone who
is a curriculum specialist to implement guidelines. Without strong models of
sex ed syllabi, it’s easy for even well-intentioned districts to have holes in
their curriculum. 

Pittsburgh’s "Abstinence-Plus"

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Public Schools, for example, is a
district that announced just weeks ago that it’ll move away from its model of
abstinence-only-until-marriage and begin teaching "about contraception, dating
and alternative lifestyles … (as well as) sexual orientation, marriage and life
commitments, sexual dysfunction, sexual abuse and gender roles," reports the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Citing the city’s high teen pregnancy
rate, the new policy passed the school board with an 8-1 vote.

"The change in Pittsburgh happened because parents called
into question what their kids are being taught," Smith said. "Which shows you
how attention paid to the issue is how change happens."

It’s a positive step towards better educating students.
However, this more comprehensive model is uneven. Described as "abstinence-plus,"
the program will still emphasize abstinence as the best choice for students and
will not distribute or demonstrate contraceptives or contraception methods.

Developing a Comprehensive Model

Champions of comprehensive sex ed are working to remedy such
a patchy application of comprehensive sexuality education by developing model
curricula. Advocates for Youth, for example, offers sample lesson plans on its
website that indicate what kids should be learning at each age. It includes
plans for teaching about body image, addressing discrimination, reducing sexual
risk, and discerning your own values about your sexuality.

More expansively, SEICUS, Advocates for Youth and Answer
pulled together national leaders in December 2008 for a Future of Sex Education
project. The task? "To develop national guidelines for what we mean with
comprehensive sex education," Smith said.

These national guidelines – which will include information
about contraception, sexual orientations, gender identity, sexual abuse, and,
yes, even choosing abstinence – continue to be developed in collaboration.

In the meantime, advocacy organizations are focused on
convincing governments to redirect abstinence-only funds to support the kind of
comprehensive sex ed programs that are proven to reduce teen pregnancy and

States can take the initiative.

California is recognized for never having accepted ab-only
funds from the federal government, but rather prioritizing comprehensive
education with a law that, according to Marcela Howell, vice-president of Advocates for Youth, says that districts don’t have
to teach sex ed, but if they do, they must include particular information – like
STD treatment and prevention and the effectiveness of all FDA-approved
contraceptives – that is part of the comprehensive vision.

States can plug the hole in federal investment by taking
responsibility for its own dollars. "The State of Florida squandered its own $17 million spent
on ab-only since 2002," Smith said.
"If they can invest $17 million in ab-only programs, they
can spend it on a more comprehensive program."

For the most wide-ranging impact, national organizations
turn their attention to top.

"What we’re like to see is, under a new Congress, under a
new White House with a president who’s made a commitment to comprehensive sex
education, we have a very simple ask: Stop funding the bad programs and start
funding the good ones," Howell said.

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.

Analysis Law and Policy

With No Scalia, What’s Next for the Supreme Court?

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Justice Antonin Scalia's death complicates an already contentious Supreme Court term.

Few personalities loomed as large over U.S. law and politics as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative justice who died Saturday at age 79. In addition to making the 2016 presidential race even more interesting, his sudden death complicates a Court term already packed with marquee culture war topics such as abortion, affirmative action, and union rights. So what happens to those cases now that the Court is down a justice, and what does Scalia’s death mean for progressives? A helluva lot.

First, the nitty-gritty details. Yes, the Court can and will still function with only eight justices. The Court needs a quorum of six to hear cases, so even with possible recusals—themselves not that common—the Court’s business should continue. The Court’s term runs until the end of June, and there is plenty of time left in President Obama’s term to have a replacement confirmed. However, given the level of games-playing demonstrated by senators on the Judiciary Committee since the last Supreme Court nomination fight, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Republicans try to run out the clock on a third Obama Court appointment. But let’s not think about that right now.

In terms of the cases the Court has already heard, Justice Scalia’s votes count only in cases that have already been decided, with an opinion released. For cases where the Court has not yet released an opinion, his votes—to the extent they have happened already after written briefings and oral arguments—are void. That’s a big deal for those cases in which Scalia was part of a 5-4 conservative majority. Those include Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, where the Court was expected to strike yet another blow to organized labor by limiting fair-share fees, which help fund the organizing efforts that benefit all employees, union members or not.

Assuming, as most legal observers have, that the vote in Friedrichs to strike fair-share fees was 5 to 4, Scalia’s death means the Court is now split evenly. In cases when there is no majority for a decision, the lower court decision is affirmed. In Friedrichs, that would mean a win for organized labor and a loss for the Koch brothers, who helped incubate the union challenge. Like I said, it’s a big deal.

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This brings me to one of the Court’s most closely watched cases this term, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, formerly Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, which the Court will hear in March. As Drexel University School of Law professor David Cohen wrote in this must-read piece on the immediate implications of Scalia’s death on the case, Roe v. Wade is safe, for now. That’s because Scalia’s death makes it impossible for the remaining conservative justices to issue a sweeping opinion, applicable nationwide, that would effectively gut Roe by upholding Texas’ abortion restrictions, which have nearly regulated abortion out of existence in the state.

Should Justice Anthony Kennedy vote with the remaining conservatives and affirm the Fifth Circuit’s decision, the impact would be devastating for Texans as well as those who live in Louisiana and Mississippi, the other states covered by the Fifth Circuit, but that’s as far as the decision could reach. I still think Justice Kennedy is going to vote to strike the restrictions, which means reproductive rights advocates would win 5 to 3; the Texas restrictions and their copycats in Louisiana and Mississippi will likely go down; and those appellate court decisions blocking similar laws in places like Wisconsin and Alabama will stand. Another really big deal.

There is precedent for the Court to order cases affected by Scalia’s absence that end in a tie for rehearing once Scalia’s replacement is confirmed. But it is not entirely clear if that would apply in this instance, in part because nobody knows how long it will take to get a new justice confirmed, and how many tie votes we will get before then.

In other words, it is possible for the stakes to get even higher about Justice Scalia’s replacement, and rehearing legal challenges to union fees and the contraception benefit, for example, would do just that.

Beyond the impact on the Court’s upcoming business, there is Scalia’s legacy to wrestle with. Already, the tributes are coming in, as is appropriate for a person who served decades in the public sector. But here is where I must part ways with many of my colleagues offering their praises for Scalia.

I am not comfortable honoring a justice who consistently used his power and privilege as a cudgel against the disadvantaged. His dissents, no matter how masterfully written, didn’t strike me as something to celebrate, even ironically, because they became rallying cries for some of the most radical elements of the conservative movement.

Take, for instance, his dissent in Stenberg v. Carhart, the 2000 decision that struck Nebraska’s so-called partial-birth abortion ban.

“I am optimistic enough to believe that, one day, Stenberg v. Carhart will be assigned its rightful place in the history of this Court’s jurisprudence beside Korematsu and Dred Scott,” wrote Scalia, referring to previous Supreme Court opinions justifying Japanese internment during World War II and saying that Black individuals, whether free or enslaved, were not “people” who could bring claims in federal court. “The method of killing a human childone cannot even accurately say an entirely unborn human child—proscribed by this statute is so horrible that the most clinical description of it evokes a shudder of revulsion.”

“The notion that the Constitution of the United States, designed, among other things, ‘to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, . . . and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,’ prohibits the States from simply banning this visibly brutal means of eliminating our half-born posterity is quite simply absurd,” he wrote.

It really should come as no surprise that the justice who in his dissent in Planned Parenthood v. Casey flat-out declared reproductive privacy nonexistent and wrote that he was “sure” abortion is not a “liberty protected by the United States,” would invoke racial internment and slavery, and employ terms such as “half-born,” to argue against the fundamental human rights of women. And it should also come as no surprise that more than 20 years after Casey, Scalia’s rhetoric around abortion and slavery finds itself regurgitated by the likes of radical anti-choice operative Troy Newman.

Justice Scalia’s dissents were easy for progressives to write off as the argle-bargle ravings of an angry white man, because they were. It was kind of funny when Scalia snarked about government broccoli during the first challenge to the Affordable Care Act. But for every applesauce quip, there was an example of a sitting Supreme Court justice providing cover and legitimacy to some of the ugliest aspects of the conservative movement.

There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” Scalia said earlier this term, during oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case looking to eradicate affirmative action programs in public universities. The Court has not yet released its opinion in Fisher. “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”

That quote is not Scalia being provocative. It is Scalia promoting discredited social science to support his own personal opinion that affirmative action policies are themselves racially discriminatory.

Almost immediately after news of Justice Scalia’s death broke, Republicans in Congress promised to block any nominee to replace him. President Obama responded by offering his condolences to Justice Scalia’s family for his passing, before promising to fulfill his constitutional duty to quickly name a replacement. Scalia’s death, like much of his life, was instantly, bitterly partisan. In some ways, that’s a feature of our broken federal judiciary system, where appointments are routinely used as political leverage and capital. But in others, it’s a reflection of the kind of jurist Scalia was and why a critical look at his legacy is imperative. Scalia stoked partisanship in his opinions and public appearances, and not simply in the healthy-exercise-of-differences represented by the friendship between him and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He was the consummate activist judge, and no amount of flowery prose or biting dissents can undo that devastating aspect of his legacy.