MIAMI — For the first time in more than a decade, the federal government is funding sex education programs that aren't based solely on abstinence. But they're not just about handing out condoms either.
Beginning this school year, a five-year, $375 million grant is being divided among 28 programs that have been proven to lower the pregnancy rate among participants, no matter their focus. Many programs distribute condoms, but about half also aim to boost teens' academics, get them involved in extracurricular activities and even improve their parents' job status by offering education programs and resume writing tips.
Advocates believe this "above the waist" approach gives kids the tools to help them succeed in school and make better life decisions, especially about sex.
"There's a growing realization that we have to talk to young people about relationships. It's not just body parts," said Bill Albert, the chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. "It's saying, 'What are your goals?' and helping young people understand what they need to do to get there."
That theory, which has become popular in the safe-sex community in the past decade, will replace the abstinence-centered talks funded by a Republican Congress in the late 1990s and later under President George W. Bush to the tune of $1.5 billion.
Critics contend there is little proof those programs work. In 2007, Mathematica Policy Research, an independent government contractor, released a study showing that students in abstinence-only programs are no more likely to abstain from sex, delay having sex or have fewer partners than students who received no sex education.
The teen birth rate rose from 2005 to 2007 after years of a steady decline, then dipped again in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Abstinence programs will still receive a $50 million annual federal grant that requires states to match $3 for every $4, and about 30 states have applied for that money. The $375 million federal grant does not require states to provide matching funds.
Almost all U.S. teens have had formal sex education, but only about two-thirds have been taught birth control methods, according to a CDC report released Sept. 15.
Many parents mistakenly believe that kids are getting comprehensive sex education at school. The curriculum varies among school districts, but students get a very limited amount of sex ed in school, Albert said.
Communities seeking different or additional instruction for their kids will choose from the 28 programs that were approved for funding by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services following evaluations by Mathematica Policy Research that deemed them effective.
To qualify, programs had to be supported by at least one study showing a positive, statistically significant effect on at least one of the following categories: sexual activity, contraceptive use, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy or births.