AFTER BEING REBUFFED by the Legislature last spring, Governor Romney has ordered that about $750,000 in federal grants for abstinence-only sex education be spent exclusively in Massachusetts classrooms, eliminating an effective public-service education campaign and possibly crowding out more comprehensive sex education already being offered in the schools. The Legislature ought to reassert its support for comprehensive sex education by fully funding the program and writing a preference for it into law.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom insists that the abstinence-only programs will not replace comprehensive sex education. But state funding for the comprehensive programs has been drastically cut, leaving school departments with the choice of shortchanging other programs or accepting the abstinence-only restrictions.
The departments of Education and Public Health have lost about $25 million since fiscal year 2002 in state health-education funds that specified comprehensive sex education. Money for teen pregnancy prevention services through DPH has been cut from $5.4 million in fiscal year 2001 to about $2 million today. Romney has directed that the new abstinence grants be aimed at poorer communities with large black and Hispanic teen populations. These are precisely the school districts that are most dependent on state or federal aid.
In March, the Legislature voted down a Romney amendment directing that the so-called Title V federal abstinence money be spent only in public schools. The House vote was 104-to-44, and the Senate concurred by voice vote. Several legislators cited the success of the existing abstinence education media campaign that has been spending the Title V funds on public-service ads. But Romney directed the DPH to write its federal grant applications so that abstinence-only would be taught in more classrooms.
Romney plans to hire an outside vendor to design the state's abstinence-only curriculum. A congressional review last year found that some widely used abstinence curriculums in other states were disseminating inaccurate or nonscientific information, including that AIDS can be transmitted through tears. The program emphasizes delaying sexual intercourse to the exclusion of condom use or other birth-control methods.
In times of straitened public budgets, it is hard to resist the federal largesse that accompanies abstinence-only programs. But Maine, California, and Pennsylvania don't accept the money. Massachusetts ought to stand up for proven, effective measures to combat pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease and just say no to the abstinence-only money and the strings that come attached.