Maine Rejects Federal Sex-Education Funds

Maine becomes the third state to turn down federal funding for school-based sex education because new stricter rules mean the funds can be used only for programs that teach abstinence only. Pennsylvania and California have taken the same step.

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First it was California and Pennsylvania. Now Maine has turned down federal money for abstinence-only sex education programs. The governor's office says taking the money would force the state to adhere to a message that does more harm than good. Maine Public Broadcasting's Barbara Cariddi reports.

BARBARA CARIDDI reporting:

At the Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland, sex education teacher Margaret Hoyt is coaching sixth-graders on how to resist a kiss.

Ms. MARGARET HOYT (Sex Education Teacher): Let's look at the last one. Just one kiss. Come on, just one little kiss.

CARIDDI: Hoyt's lesson is part of a state-mandated comprehensive approach to sex education which she says emphasizes abstinence.

Ms. HOYT: But we also provide explicit information for those who don't heed our advice and postpone. So there's explicit information about birth control that's included in the program as well.

CARIDDI: In 1998 Maine began supplementing such classroom instruction with television public service announcements produced with federal abstinence-only funds. But this year State Bureau of Health Director Dr. Dora Mills says Maine turned down the program's $161,000 grant and will not apply for the funds next year.

Dr. DORA MILLS (Director, Maine State Bureau of Health): These funds are actually potentially harmful. They're not just ineffective. These funds are harmful.

CARIDDI: They're harmful, Mills says, because this year's tightened rules for spending the money prevent educators from providing teens with comprehensive information about sex. Since Maine began requiring a comprehensive approach 20 years ago, Mills says, the state's teen pregnancy rate has dropped from the highest in the nation to one of the lowest.

Dr. MILLS: And that success we do not want to turn our back on. And accept--continuing to accept these funds means turning the clock back to an earlier time when teen-age pregnancy was a major public health concern in this state.

CARIDDI: But private groups in Maine are accepting the federal funds. Mary Schiavoni is president of Heritage Maine, created with a million-and-a-half-dollar federal abstinence grant. Schiavoni says abstinence-only sex education is anything but harmful. She says it gives teens the character skills they need to say no to sex, the only sure way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Ms. MARY SCHIAVONI (Heritage Maine): The state of Maine does not comply with the federal guidelines to use these federal taxpayer dollars and they don't want to comply with the federal guidelines. They, in fact, do not want to teach abstinence to students in Maine.

CARIDDI: In the past, Maine and other states have ignored some of the federal guidelines for spending the money, which require teaching that any sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage is wrong and harmful. But this year the federal agency that administers the program advised states that such so-called cherry-picking won't be allowed. Harry Wilson is the associate commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau.

Mr. HARRY WILSON (Family and Youth Services Bureau): What we expect in return for the money is that they would actually conduct abstinence programs in the state that address the eight different priorities of the legislation.

CARIDDI: Maine's decision means the state will lose about a third of its sex education money, but State Bureau of Health Director Dora Mills says Maine's teens will be better off without it. For NPR News, I'm Barbara Cariddi in Portland, Maine.

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