Commentary Sexual Health

Sex Education in Mississippi: Why It Is Time to Celebrate Progress

Jamie H. Bardwell

Under a new law requiring Mississippi schools to choose either an abstinence-plus or an abstinence-only policy, 71 schools chose the broader policy. This is progress, even for Mississippi.

Did you hear the good news about Mississippi and sex education?

I didn’t think so.

As a Mississippian working on social justice issues, I routinely advertise our state’s rankings: highest teen birth rate, highest child poverty rate, highest obesity rate, etc. It is easy to portray Mississippi in a negative light because it is the worst state for women, particularly women of color and women at or near poverty.

While recognizing the state’s dire statistics, it’s still important to realize that Mississippi is making enormous progress in sex education policy. Progress may not be obvious to the casual observer but it is happening.

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The Mississippi legislature passed a law in 2011 that requires every school district to adopt a sex education policy (“abstinence-only” or “abstinence-plus”) and a corresponding curriculum approved by the Mississippi Department of Education. Of the state’s 152 school districts, 81 adopted an abstinence-only policy and 71 adopted an abstinence-plus policy.

Mississippi’s sex education law is not perfect. The law requires gender-separate classrooms, bans condom demonstrations and instruction, requires parents to “opt-in” their teenager (vs. the more progressive “opt-out”), and defines abstinence-plus as almost identical to abstinence-only. And, the Mississippi Department of Education has approved Choosing the Best, a well-known, fear-based  abstinence-only curriculum, which can be used in schools who adopt either the abstinence-only or the  abstinence-plus policy because of the law’s weak definition of abstinence-plus. Unfortunately, many school districts, even those that adopted an abstinence-plus policy, will teach Choosing the Best. (It still makes me laugh that Choosing the Best includes a mock marriage ceremony that, under Mississippi law, must be performed in gender-separated classrooms.)

Still, before this year not a single school district had adopted any sex education policy, and the fact that 47 percent of the districts adopted abstinence-plus policies is groundbreaking. This is progress.

Of those 71 school districts with an abstinence-plus policy, 35 districts went one step further and adopted the Creating Healthy and Responsible Teens (CHART) policy promoted by the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH) and Mississippi First, an education nonprofit. The CHART policy requires the school district to adopt an evidence-based curriculum. The evidence-based curriculum must be on the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ list of evidence-based programs and be approved by the Mississippi Department of Education. Two evidence-based, abstinence-plus curricula are being implemented by CHART districts: Draw the Line/Respect the Line and Reducing the Risk. These 35 school districts, most of which are considered high priority because they have significantly high teen birth and STI rates, will also have access to ongoing technical assistance, teacher training, and evaluation. This is progress.

Mississippi received federal Personal Responsibility and Education Program (PREP) dollars to support the CHART initiative. While many states awarded PREP dollars to nonprofits for community-based sex education, Mississippi took a different route and used these dollars to institutionalize evidence-based, abstinence-plus sex education. Now, Mississippi is benefiting from a perfect storm of factors: federal funding to support evidence-based sex education, a state department of health that understands teen pregnancy as a public health epidemic, and an unfunded mandate by the Mississippi legislature to teach sex education. This is progress.

One of the most encouraging characteristics about this progress is that it is led by young Mississippians. Mississippi First, the nonprofit that created the CHART policy with support from the Mississippi State Department of Health, has traveled to school districts across Mississippi to advocate for evidence-based, abstinence-plus sex education. Mississippi First is a four-year-old nonprofit founded by two Teach-for-America alums in their early 30s: Rachel Canter and Sanford Johnson. Johnson drove over 6,800 miles around Mississippi to persuade school districts to adopt the CHART policy.  Let me be clear about my bias: the foundation I work for, the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, has made two grants to support Mississippi First’s sex education advocacy. In spite of my bias, I am convinced that Johnson’s work is an example of grassroots advocacy at its finest. This is progress.

Despite all of this progress, newspapers routinely ran headlines like this: “Majority of school districts choose abstinence-only curriculum.” The Huffington Post article on Mississippi’s sex education decision only mentioned that 81 districts, a majority, adopted abstinence-only. There was never any mention of the 71 districts that adopted abstinence-plus and definitely no mention of the CHART districts. Casual observers had one thing to say after reading the headline and the story: Mississippi is still as backwards as ever. This Mississippi narrative is so ingrained that it has become impossible to celebrate progress.

But reproductive health advocates can’t forget to celebrate our wins. Including Mississippi voices in the narrative about our state is one of the most important ways we can break this cycle. Advocates within Mississippi (and outside) must be willing to describe the needs but also document the progress. Momentum builds when people believe progress is possible. It is difficult to persuade smart, pragmatic, progressive people to work on social justice issues if they think social change is impossible. This work is not impossible, it’s just not easy. And repeating the same old tired narrative about Mississippi isn’t helping anyone.

News Law and Policy

No Need to Block Bathroom Access for Transgender Student, Attorneys Tell Supreme Court

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A transgender student in Virginia sued the local school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity was unconstitutional.

Attorneys representing transgender student Gavin Grimm told the U.S. Supreme Court this week that there was no reason to block a lower court order guaranteeing Grimm access to school restrooms that align with his gender identity while Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board proceeds.

Grimm in 2015 sued the school board, arguing that its policy of mandating that students use bathrooms consistent with their “biological sex” rather than their gender identity—thus separating transgender students from their peers—was unconstitutional. Attorneys representing Grimm argued that the policy violates the 14th Amendment and Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law prohibiting sex-based discrimination at schools that receive federal funding.

A lower district court ruled the school board’s policy did not violate Grimm’s rights. But the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, reversing that decision and sending the case back to the lower court, which then blocked the school district from enforcing its policy while Grimm’s case proceeds.

In response, the school board notified the Fourth Circuit of its intent to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court and requested the appellate court stay its order granting Grimm access to bathrooms aligned with his gender identity—a decision the Fourth Circuit granted in June.

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The school board then asked the Roberts Court to issue an emergency stay of the lower court decision blocking its bathroom policy while the Court considers taking Grimm’s case.

Grimm’s attorneys argue there is no basis for the Roberts Court to grant the emergency stay requested by the school board. The board has “utterly failed to demonstrate that it will suffer irreparable harm” if Grimm is allowed to use the boys’ restroom at Gloucester High School while the Roberts Court considers stepping into the case at all, according to Grimm’s attorneys.

Attorneys for the school board filed their request with Chief Justice John Roberts, who handles petitions from the Fourth Circuit. Roberts can rule on the school board’s request to block the lower court decision, or he can refer the request to the entire Court to consider.

It is not known when Roberts or the Court will make that choice.

The Gloucester County School Board has argued that the Obama administration overstepped its authority in protecting transgender student rights. Attorneys for the school board said that overreach began in 2012, when an administration agency issued an opinion that said refusing transgender students access to the bathrooms consistent with their gender identity violated Title IX.

The administration expanded that opinion in October 2015 and filed a friend of the court brief on Grimm’s behalf with the Fourth Circuit, arguing it was the administration’s position that the school board’s policy violated federal law.

The administration again expanded that opinion in May this year into a directive stating that should publicly funded schools deny transgender students access to facilities that conform to students’ gender identity, they would be in violation of federal law, subject to lawsuits, and risking their federal funding.

The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on these actions in initially siding with Grimm earlier this year.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.