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."
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry, downplayed any role his office may have played, saying, "HHSC keeps us apprised of what they are doing regarding the Affordable Care Act, but ultimately the executive commissioner makes the final decision."
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a supporter of abortion rights, Texas has the fourth-highest teen pregnancy rate and the third-highest teen birth rate of any state. A study released by the Texas Freedom Network in 2009 showed that more than 96 percent of Texas school districts do not teach any method of contraception other than abstinence. Texas Freedom Network and others argue that more comprehensive education is needed.
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."
Realini worries that some communities might refrain from applying because of an impression that Texas is an abstinence-only state by statute. "Our statute requires that we emphasize abstinence, that we make it clear that it's the preferred behavior," she said, "but we are allowed to teach about birth control and condoms." She is also concerned about the perception that abstinence-plus curriculums end up encouraging sexual behavior. "None of these programs increase sexual activity by any measure," she said. "It's a myth. Almost all programs that are shown to work have an abstinence-plus component."
Villarreal said the first legislative step toward improving the state's sex ed is to pass a law prohibiting the teaching of medically inaccurate information. Such a bill failed to get out of committee last session. "Lawmakers need to come to terms with the reality we are facing in our schools with teen pregnancy," he said. "If we are going to do sex ed, it needs to be accurate and research-based so we can have an effect on what should be the common ground shared goal of reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies."