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Texas’ teen pregnancy rate is the result of bad policy choices

From the Rivard Report:

In Texas each year, about 35,000 young women get pregnant before they turn 20. Traditionally, the two variables most commonly associated with high teen birth rates are education and poverty, but a new study, co-authored by Dr. Julie DeCesare, shows that there’s more at play.

“We controlled for poverty as a variable, and we found these 10 centers where their teen birth rates were much higher than would be predicted,” she said.

DeCesare, whose research appears in the June issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, said several of those clusters were in Texas. The Dallas and San Antonio areas, for example, had teen pregnancy rates 50% and 40% above the national average.

Research shows teens everywhere are having sex. Gwen Daverth, CEO of the Texas Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said the high numbers in Texas reflect policy, not promiscuity.

“What we see is there are not supports in place,” Daverth said. “We’re not connecting high-risk youth with contraception services. And we’re not supporting youth in making decisions to be abstinent. We’re just saying that is an approach we want to take as a state – whereas other states have put in more progressive policies.”

Daverth said California invested in comprehensive sex education and access to contraception. There, the teenage birth rate dropped by 74% from 1991 to 2015. The teen birth rate in Texas also fell, but only by 56%.

In South Carolina, young women on Medicaid who have babies are offered the opportunity to get a long-acting form of birth control right after they give birth. They’re also trying that approach in parts of North Carolina. And Colorado subsidizes the cost of long-acting birth control. There, both abortions and teen birth rates are dropping faster than the national average.

Texas makes it hard for teenagers to get reproductive health care, Daverth says.

In Texas, if a 17-year-old mom wants prescription birth control, in most cases she needs her parents’ permission. “Only [Texas] and Utah have a law that if you’re already a parent, you are the legal medical guardian of your baby, but you cannot make your own medical decisions without the now-grandma involved,” Daverth said.

That’s part of the reason, she notes, Texas has the highest rate of repeat teen pregnancies in the country.

Emphasis mine. That’s pretty much our state in a nutshell. The problem is that any effort to deal with this necessarily begins the acknowledgment of the realities of the situation – you know, like that teens have sex and that teens who have sex without access to contraception and good information about reproductive health are much more likely to become parents than teens who do have those things – and we’re no good at that. Shame and denial is so much easier, and we live with the results of that.

Budget passes House as most amendments get pulled

It was a long day in the House on Tuesday and Wednesday but not a terribly bloody one as many of the budget amendments and riders that had been queued up got withdrawn. A brief recap of the action:

Border “security”:

BagOfMoney

House Democrats tried — and mostly failed — to divert funds allotted for border security and the Texas Department of Public Safety to other departments during Tuesday’s marathon budget debate.

But the rancor over immigration enforcement that many expected didn’t materialize after lawmakers agreed to pull down amendments that, if debated, would have aired ideological differences over the contentious issue.

After predicting a “bloody day” on the House floor, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, pulled an amendment that would have reduced the appropriations for a public college or university by the same amount that it awarded in grants or financial aid to undocumented students.

Last month, Stickland expressed frustration over the lack of traction for a bill he filed to eliminate a 2001 provision that allows undocumented immigrants in-state tuition.

But on Tuesday, Stickland, with little attention or fanfare, withdrew the amendment after discussions with lawmakers.

“We did some negotiations,” he said.

An amendment by state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, that would have defunded the state’s Border Faculty Loan Repayment Program, which was created to help keep doctoral students on the border to teach, was also withdrawn with little attention.

On the funding, Democrats made good on their promises to try and take money from border security operations, which was at about $565 million when the day began, to local entities or other state departments.

[…]

One border lawmaker had tentative success in transferring money from DPS to his district for local law enforcement grants. An amendment by state Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, would take $10 million from the agency for that effort. But it’s contingent upon another measure — Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen’s House Bill 11, an omnibus border security bill — making it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk and getting signed.

Republicans had a bit more success in shifting money.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, was able to direct money into the state’s military forces for paid training for Texas’ 2,300 members of the reserve unit.

“Most of them reside in most of our districts, and we have zeroed out money for training,” he said.

But the success came after a lengthy back and forth between Huberty and members upset at where the funds would be taken from. Huberty offered one amendment that would have taken $2.2 million from the Texas Agriculture Department. That didn’t sit well with Democrat Tracy King, D-Batesville, the chairman of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee. Huberty eventually pulled that amendment and instead took $2.2 million from the Texas Facilities Commission.

Huberty specified on Monday that the money is not intended to extend the Texas National Guard’s deployment on the Texas-Mexico border.

The Senate wants to spend even more money on the ridiculous border surge, so this fight is far from over. The fact that this is a complete boondoggle that makes the rest of the state less safe, it’s one of the few things that certain legislators actually want to spend money on.

The voucher fight was similarly deferred.

A potentially contentious vote on a measure that would have banned spending public money on school vouchers was avoided after its author withdrew the amendment.

Rep. Abel Herrero (D-Corpus Christi) said he pulled the amendment because it wasn’t necessary.

“Given the commitment of the House to supporting public education, I felt this amendment was duplicative,” Herrero said. It also would have forced some lawmakers to take a difficult vote, caught between turning their backs on their district’s public schools and potentially earning the ire of conservative interest groups.

A coalition of Democrats and rural Republican lawmakers has coalesced during the past two decades to defeat voucher legislation. Herrero said the anti-voucher coalition is still strong.

“The coalition is solid,” Herrero said, “Vouchers for all intents and purposes are dead in the House.”

The coalition may be strong, but Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler is working to weaken it. Mechler sent a letter to GOP legislators Tuesday pushing them to vote against Herrero’s amendment.

If you followed the budget action on Twitter, this was the first major amendment to get pulled, and it was a sign of things to come. Attention will shift to Public Education Chair Jimmie Don Aycock when that loser of a bill passes the Senate.

Finally, you knew there had to be a moment that would be worthy of the Daily Show and the kind of viral mockery that makes us all heave deep sighs. Sure enough:

Seven hours into Tuesday’s debate on the House’s $210 billion two-year budget, things got first heated and then uncomfortable as state Rep. Stuart Spitzer, R-Kaufman, successfully pushed an amendment to move $3 million from HIV and STD prevention programs to pay for abstinence education.

A line of opponents gathered behind the podium as Spitzer laid out his amendment and proceeded to grill, quiz and challenge the lawmaker on his motives.

“Is it not significant that Texas has the third-highest number of HIV cases in the country?” state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, asked. “Does it bother you to know there are people walking around with HIV, undiagnosed?”

Turner and Spitzer also had an exchange over how Spitzer had arrived at his price tag. “If we gave you a billion dollars for abstinence, would that be enough?” Turner asked. “Or would you need two?”

[…]

Texas allows school districts to decide whether and how to approach sex education, as long as they teach more about abstinence than any other preventive method, like condoms and birth control. But a number of representatives questioned the effectiveness of this program.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, pointed out that the state currently has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the country, and the single-highest rate of repeat teen pregnancy.

“It may not be working well,” said Spitzer, in reference to the current abstinence education program. “But abstinence education is HIV prevention. They are essentially the same thing.”

State Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, took to the podium and asked Spitzer, “Were you taught abstinence education? Did it work?”

Spitzer replied that he was a virgin when he married at age 29. “I’ve only had sex with one woman in my life, and that’s my wife,” Spitzer said.

Dutton continued. “And since you brought it up, is that the first woman you asked?”

“I’m not sure that’s an appropriate question,” Spitzer responded.

The House was called to order, and Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, took the microphone. “Earlier you stated that you could not get STDs without having sex,” she said.

“It depends on what your definition of sex is,” said Spitzer. “I can go through of all of this if you want to.”

“If you still think you can’t get an STD without having sex, then maybe we need to educate you,” Collier added.

Spitzer’s amendment ultimately passed 97 to 47.

Spitzer is a medical doctor, because having one Donna Campbell in the Lege just wasn’t enough. He must have been absent the day they went over how intravenous drug use is a frequent means of transmission for HIV. This is another lesson the state of Indiana could teach us if we cared to pay attention. The Observer, Nonsequiteuse, RG Ratcliffe, Trail Blazers, and Newsdesk have more.

Another reason why Texas has a high teen pregnancy rate

We’re lousy at sex education.

In the mid-1990s, California embraced sex education that teaches students the importance of waiting until they’re older to have sex, but also the value of using protection if they don’t wait.

Compare this with classrooms in Texas, where messages around contraception — if they’re delivered at all — have sometimes been shrouded in negativity and misinformation.

Which method has proved most effective?

The numbers are telling: Texas had the fourth-highest teen birth rate in the nation while California was 29th in 2010.

California reduced its numbers despite sharing Texas’ demographics and sky-high teen birth rates in the early ’90s. And while more teens have abortions in California than in Texas, California reduced those at the same time it brought down teen births.

California teachers freely promote condom use and other birth control methods. They demonstrate condom use in class. Classroom talk is frank and open. Many schools have free condom handout programs.

In Texas, where a state code demands a heavy emphasis on abstinence, teaching tends to be more constricted. Condoms can’t be distributed as part of instruction.

Across the U.S. there are essentially two types of sex ed curricula — comprehensive programs that promote abstinence and contraception, and programs that promote only abstinence, many of which historically cast contraceptive use in a negative light, if it was included at all. Texas has been called the “poster child” for the latter.

But the buzzword in sex education now is “evidence-based” — programs that are proven to positively change teen behavior — most of which are comprehensive, at least for now.

As the tide turns toward such rigorously tested programs, once firm lines are blurring. Some so-called abstinence-only programs teach more than “just say no” — decision-making skills and the like — and some now address contraception in a more neutral way. Meanwhile, some so-called comprehensive programs spend more time teaching abstinence than contraception.

In Texas, parents, teachers and administrators are rethinking sex education.

It’s a fairly long story, and it’s worth your time to read. As we know, there are more factors involved in the teen pregnancy and birth rates than just the quality of sex education, but we’re not in good shape with any of them. You might also be surprised to learn that “abstinence only” sex education can be evidence-based, too. I have philosophical issues with the concept of “abstinence only”, but if such a curriculum can be shown to be effective in reducing teen pregnancy and STD transmission, I can live with it.

One more thing:

Teaching birth control, especially in middle school, “is a sad message, almost like giving up,” said one mother who asked not to be named so as not to identify her children. Her two teen sons took vows to remain virgins until marriage.

“Teaching that condoms provide safe sex isn’t true,” she said. “But the real problem is it makes you think you’re entitled to do whatever you want. You’re not entitled to have sex just because you want to.”

Kyleen Wright, president of the Texans for Life Coalition, agreed.

“We don’t tell kids, ‘Try not to be too fat or too drunk when you drive or just smoke a little bit,’” she said. “In Texas, we have a clear and singular message. We don’t change that message just because not everyone is getting it.”

But Cheyenne Armendariz, 12, who attends New Frontiers, said kids can discern the difference between information and permission. “I mean, like, duh, we have our own brains,” she said.

You tell ’em, Cheyenne. As the story notes, the facts are on your side. For more information, see these Texas Freedom Network reports.

Even in Midland

Fact-based sex education replaces mythical thinking in Midland. And they said it couldn’t be done.

In the spring, public school students in Midland will cross what until very recently was the political third rail of sex education. For the first time, they will be taught about contraception — and how to practice safe sex.

The West Texas town is known for oil and Republican presidents, not progressive social policy. But after watching the teen pregnancy rates creep up year after year — 172 pregnant girls were enrolled in the town’s public schools last year — many in the community realized something needed to change.

“These are girls as young as 13 that are pregnant, some of them are on their second pregnancies,” said Tracey Dees, the supervisor of health services in the district of just under 22,000 students, adding that many of them reported having sexually transmitted infections as well.

Eighteen months ago, with input from parents, staff and other community leaders, the school board decided to implement a new curriculum for seventh and eighth-graders — one that emphasizes that waiting to have sex is best, but also teaches students about condoms and birth control. Midland is just one of a number of schools, from West Texas to the suburbs of Houston, that are moving toward “abstinence-plus” education at the urging of their health advisory committees made up of community members.

“We’re getting calls from all over the state,” said Susan Tortolero, the director of the University of Texas’ Prevention Research Center in Houston who developed the curriculum being used in Midland. “It’s like we’re beyond this argument of abstinence, abstinence plus. Districts want something that works.”

What a novel idea. There’s a part of me that’s never quite understood why this is controversial. I mean, why wouldn’t you want your kids to have the best information? How can you expect them to make good decisions otherwise? I’m glad that even in places like Midland, people are starting to get that. It’s just a shame that so many kids had to be poorly served in the meantime.

No federal sex ed money for Texas

Stay ignorant, kids. It’s what the state of Texas wants you to do.

At the end of the summer, Texas quietly opted to forgo yet another pot of federal money — specifically, $4.4 million that would have gone toward educating youth on abstinence and contraception to prevent teen pregnancy.

The Department of State Health Services began drafting the application for the Personal Responsibility Education Program funds, but the decision was made not apply before the Aug. 30 deadline. Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for DSHS said, “The [Health and Human Services] Executive Commissioner [Tom Suehs] made the final decision, and the governor’s office was part of that discussion.”

“This is yet another example of politics dominating policy in the governor’s office,” said state Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio. “Unfortunately, the governor’s re-election campaign theme of running against Washington has, yet again, hampered our ability to access much needed funds to overcome very real challenges that our state is facing.”

[…]

Dr. Janet Realini, the president and CEO of Healthy Futures of Texas, a nonprofit geared toward “reducing teen and unplanned pregnancy,” said that mission would be easier with the “evidence-based” education programs the PREP money would have funded. “I feel this is a great loss for the state,” she said. “This is a huge amount of money, and there’s such a need for these programs in Texas.”

DSHS did apply for $5.4 million in federal funding for abstinence-only education. “Applying for this funding is in line with state goals and strategies,” Williams said, noting that the state’s “first choice is that teens choose not to have sex.” In an e-mail, she said the abstinence-only funds would have been lost to other states, whereas the state’s decision not to apply for the PREP funding opens the door for individual communities to apply for the money directly “if it meets the needs/values in their communities.”

Texas is of course one of the nation’s capitals of teen pregnancy. If our idiotic focus on abstinence-only education produced better results, it would be different, but we’ve spent millions and millions of dollars on it and have nothing but a lot of babies being born to children to show for it. What a waste.

The sad state of sex education in Texas

We do a really lousy job of it.

In sex education classes, 94 percent of Texas school districts teach that abstaining from sex is the only healthy option for unmarried couples, and, in many cases, students are given misleading and inaccurate information about the risks associated with sex, according to a 72-page report released Tuesday.

Two percent of districts — in a state that has the third highest teen birth rate in the nation — ignore the subject completely, according to the study.

The two-year study, “Just Say Don’t Know: Sexuality Education in Texas Public Schools,” was conducted by two Texas State University researchers and funded by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, the research arm of the Texas Freedom Network, which describes itself as “a mainstream voice to counter the religious right.”

You can find the report and all related materials, including some fascinating videos that demonstrate just how sex ed is done these days, here.

Researchers David Wiley and Kelly Wilson, who both teach health education, examined tens of thousands of lesson plans, student handouts, speaker presentations and other related documents obtained from 990 school districts, 96 percent of Texas’ districts, through the Texas Public Information Act.

“Most of the mistruths share a common purpose, and a likely effect, and that is discouraging young people who might already be sexually active from using condoms, a message I find shocking as a professional health educator,” Wiley said.

[…]

In the report, researchers documented at least one factual error in the materials received from 41 percent of the school districts. The study’s authors found instances in which districts used what they called sexist, religious and shame- or fear-based techniques during instruction. The findings include:

On wearing condoms during sex, the Brady district has told teens, “Well if you insist on killing yourself by jumping off a bridge, at least wear these elbow pads.”

The Edinburg school district policy states, “Students should be informed that homosexual acts are illegal in Texas and highly correlated with the transmission of AIDS.”

I guess if you think the only acceptable sex is married heterosexual sex, and that nobody needs to know how not to have kids, then all this makes sense. For the rest of us, I think we could maybe do a little better than this. Kudos to the TFN for taking this on.

And in a bit of fortuitous and not-coincidental timing, I got a piece of email shortly after this came out from State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte and State Rep. Mike Villarreal, who have legislation filed to address some of these concerns. From the email:

SB 1076 and HB 1567 require abstinence curriculum that includes instruction on contraception to provide scientifically accurate information about contraceptives and methods of reducing the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. SB 1076 and HB 1567 prohibit these school districts from discouraging contraception use by students who are sexually active. This legislation does not mandate that schools provide sex education, but if they choose to offer a sex education course, it prohibits them from providing inaccurate information.

“While it is true that abstinence is the healthiest choice for teens, we cannot close our eyes and pretend we do not have students that are sexually active. We must equip students with the knowledge necessary to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies,” said Van de Putte.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that our children receive accurate information in the classroom, particularly when students’ health is at stake,” Villarreal said. “We’re dealing with a myriad of problems in Texas as a result of our sky high teen pregnancy rates. We cannot allow our schools to provide erroneous information – the stakes are far too high.”

The Observer reports on more such bills.

Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Mark Strama filed legislation, Senate Bill 1100 and House Bill 1694, which they are calling the Prevention Works Act, which requires that school districts notify parents about the content of their children’s sex education classes. Rep. Joaquin Castro’s House Bill 741 and its companion, Sen. Rodney Ellis’ Senate Bill 515, require health education to be comprehensive, age-appropriate and based on medically accurate information. “I know that sounds like a ridiculously minimal standard,” says Ryan Valentine, deputy director of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, “but it’s not an inconsequential first step.”

No it isn’t is it? Both of the Senate bills above have at least one Republican coauthor, though neither of the House bills do. Perhaps if we can tear our attention away from ultrasounds for a few minutes, we might get something that would actually help people passed. Click on for more from the TFN.

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