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Is Abstinence a $135 Million Subject?
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President Bush recently unveiled his 2003 budget proposal. That budget includes $135 million for abstinence education. The funds are to be used to teach kids to practice sexual abstinence; they won't, however, be used to teach sexually active kids how to prevent pregnancy or STDs because none of that $135 million is available to schools that also teach about contraception. Schools will have to choose either to use the additional funds to preach abstinence or to use currently available resources to teach a comprehensive sex education program. Can they afford to make that choice?


About 100 years ago, when I was 12, my mother called me into her bedroom for "the talk." She told me, "Don't ever let a strange man put his hand on your knee in the movie theater." At that time, at that age, it seemed unlikely that the situation would ever occur, so I simply nodded agreeably and went on my way. That was the sum total of my formal sex education. Consequently, when faced with the situation -- if not the exact circumstances -- my mother had tried to describe, I was completely unprepared to deal with it.

The generation that followed mine was better prepared. Those kids started sex education classes in middle school. By the time they were in high school, they knew how babies were made, how STDs were transmitted, and what the symptoms were. They had learned which forms of birth control were most effective and what the consequences of teenage pregnancy were. They knew about heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and masturbation. They were prepared to deal with sexually charged situations; they carried condoms in their wallets. What they didn't "get" were the moral and social consequences of indiscriminate sexual behavior.

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In today's StarrPoints, columnist Linda Starr asks whether schools can afford $135 million for abstinence education. What do you think? Should abstinence be part of -- or separate from -- a comprehensive sex education program? Share your reflections on a StarrPoints message board. Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four "nearly grown" children, has been an education writer for almost a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

President Bush recently unveiled his 2003 budget proposal. That budget includes $135 million for abstinence education. The funds will be used to teach kids to practice sexual abstinence. They'll learn about the emotional and psychological dangers of teenage sex. They'll learn about the risk of STDs and unwanted pregnancies. They'll learn that sex before marriage is dangerous and immoral and unacceptable. What kids -- even kids who are sexually active -- won't learn, however, is how to prevent pregnancy or STDs, because none of that $135 million is available to schools that teach about contraception. Schools will have to choose either to use the additional funds to preach abstinence or to use currently available resources to teach a comprehensive sex education program.

That forced choice, between teaching contraception and teaching abstinence, shouldn't surprise us, of course; whether we're talking about phonics or whole language, bilingual classes or English immersion programs, freedom of expression or zero tolerance, education has always been a field of extremes. Haven't we learned yet that by teaching in extremes, we fail to reach all our students?

Don't misunderstand me. I have children. I believe that sexual abstinence is the smart choice for my kids -- for all kids. But, because I do have children, I know that they don't always make smart choices. So through the years, I've said, "Don't go out on the dock -- and put on your life jacket." "Don't cross the street -- and always look both ways." "Drive carefully -- and wear your seat belt." "Don't drink -- and call me if you need a ride home." "Be good -- and if you can't be good, be careful."

Studies indicate that 42 percent of teenagers aged 15 to 17 have had sex. Even if we assume that most of those kids will practice abstinence if it's effectively taught, even if we believe that it always will be effectively taught, are we really willing to abandon to their own ignorance those kids who are sexually active? Is there any reason abstinence education cannot be incorporated into existing sex education programs?

When taught as part of a comprehensive sex education program, abstinence may be a legitimate educational goal. When formally separated from such programs, and assigned its own $135 million budget, abstinence becomes a political agenda -- an agenda that schools can ill afford.

President Bush's proposed 2003 budget, by the way, also calls for dropping 35 education programs entirely and cutting $135 million from education technology programs. At least it balances.