Roundtable: Sex Ed, Principal Shortage, Separate Proms

The panel discusses six states that may eliminate sex-education funding; a shortage of principals in the Chicago public school system; and the first non-segregated prom in one Georgia town's history.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES, I'm Farai Chideya.

On today's Roundtable, six states get ready to abstain from same sex education - from sex education funding. And Chicago's public schools are getting younger and younger, but we're not talking about the students, we're talking about the principals. One thing we're going to give a rest today unless folks are absolutely all torn up to talk about it is Rutgers and Imus because there'll be more. You know there'll be more.

Talking us to us today: E.R. Shipp, professor of journalism at the Hofstra University School of Communication, Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle," and Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and economics at Brown University.

Welcome everybody, and let's talk about sex - that was the title of a lovely Salt-N-Pepa song. In this case, we're talking about states abstaining from federal funding for sex ed. Six states have dropped out or soon will from the federal grant program that promotes abstinence-only sex education classes.

Connecticut, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin say that they are done. California never stepped up to the plate. Now most of these states say the federal program has too many rules, and critics of abstinence-only programs cheer the move, saying kids are not getting medically accurate information like condoms are porous - that's one of the refrains in some of these classes.

E.R., do you think it's a good idea at a time when there is so much sexual messaging to teens to actually refuse government money?

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Journalism, Hofstra University): No, and to say that California never stepped up to the plate is actually a bit misleading. California decided early on that in abstinence-only curriculum was going to be ineffective because in the real world we know that young people are getting these conflicting messages, and to tell them to just say no was okay, but is not enough.

So these states that are now pulling out of or considering withdrawing from this federally funded program are saying the same thing. Abstinence should be part of a broader curriculum on sexual behavior. And if the federal government is tying their hands by saying you have to do abstinence-only, then they'd rather withdraw and come up with a better plan.

CHIDEYA: Do you agree with that, though? Do you agree that the states should withdraw?

Prof. SHIPP: I think if they've done the assessments, yes, they should withdraw. Now it seems that lately the federal sponsors are trying to say that they can still accept the money for the abstinence part of the curriculum but add other things to the curriculum. That remains be seen.

CHIDEYA: All right, Jeff, this is not just theoretical for you. You've got a sex-ed aged child. Is she getting it?

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI CARR (Host, "Freestyle"): She's getting it for me.

Prof. SHIPP: You better clarify what she's getting…

CHIDEYA: I mean sex-ed. Yes. With her dad, that's all she's getting.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Yes, yes. I don't know about other dads. With her dad, that's all she's getting into.

CHIDEYA: But she's getting it from you, not from school.

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Of course she's getting it from me. And she's - and well, you know, what? That's a trick question because to some extent, at 12 years old, getting ready to be 13 in middle school, she is getting it from school. Now whether she's getting it from an established curriculum, teachers, or her peers, now that's another conversation all together. And I think it alludes to something that E.R. said in terms of the messaging that is out there in society.

Kids at 13, for some reason - and I'm thinking back and I'm like was I like that? - but for some reason they think they know it all. So they're watching TV programs like "Flavor of Love" and "I love New York," and they're seeing all of the video. They're seeing everything out there, and they're depending on each other to find out what truth is and what truth isn't. And a lot of times the teachers and administrators, unless there is a sexual education program, are terrified to tell the story and to teach.

And there are non-profits that are taking advantage of this $150-plus million that is poured into abstinence-only programs who are actually teaching, I think, that's probably part of the argument. They're actually teaching things like condoms are porous so you could possibly catch HIV.

So it's the miseducation that's attached to the money that people are chasing that's trickling down to inaccurate education for the kids and dealing with them in a way that's not realistic. And I think that's what the problem is. That's why the states are pulling out. And that's what needs to be fixed about abstinence-only programs.

It's good. It's good to use abstinence as the first method. That's definitely my first preference. But it's also good to deal realistically with what these kids are dealing with so that you don't have other problems of pregnancy and disease that you'll have resulting if you ignore it.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, you're a professor of social sciences and economics at Brown. What are the economics of this whole - so much of this has been framed, and rightfully so, in moral senses. You know, what does the government want to encourage as behavior in young people. Does it want to encourage sexual behavior even if it's safe? Does it want to encourage abstinence? People really fight about that. But what evidence is there from your economic side that shows that sex-ed works? Is there, any?

Professor GLENN LOURY (Social Sciences and Economics, Brown University): Well, I'm not an expert on sex education, but I mean the core problem here has already been identified, which is that, on the one hand, we would all prefer if our adolescent and pre-adolescent youngsters weren't sexually active.

So, you know, not only as a moral statement, not only because it says in the Bible you oughtn't to do it, but also because of just practical, you know, they'll be better off in their lives. They're not emotionally ready, and the consequences of sexual activity can be very grave, better if they abstain.

On the other hand, as people have said, the reality of the world is that young people are having sex. And so, given that sex is dangerous, we want also to tell them, you know, don't do this. We'd rather you not, but if you're going to do it, you know, here's what you need to know in order to be safe in the doing of it. And those two messages are in conflict with each other.

There is no way around this. I mean, we see this, for example, with respect to clean needle provision for drug addicts. You know, you don't want to tell people go and shoot heroine. On the other hand, if they're shooting heroine, which they are, you don't want them to be exchanging needles because of the disease implications of that. So there's a dilemma.

Now the Bush administration and the Christian right have imposed their values on the country through the federal government, and the states are rebelling against that because, in their own experience, they're finding that those values don't work.

And I find this deeply ironic. I mean, I remember when Afro-centrists were saying, we want to teach our children history in a particular way that affirms their values. And everybody was jumping up and down saying, but that's not the real history. That's not the scientific history. You just made it up.

In effect, we've got a bunch of Afro-centrists running the Department of Health and Human Services, by which I mean people who have a very distinctive orientation in terms of identity and values toward the educational program who are now trying to impose that - I'm talking about the Christian right, I'm talking about abstinence sex education - trying to impose that on everybody else. I'm glad to see that the states are pushing back.

CHIDEYA: All right, well, let me reintroduce everybody. Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and economics at Brown University. Also Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle." E.R. Shipp, professor of journalism at the Hofstra University. If you're just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

And we are in the middle of the Roundtable, moving on to another school-related topic. Chicago public school system looking for at least a 126 new - not teachers - principals. One hundred and twenty-six new principals just for the coming school year. You can blame the baby boomers retiring. You can blame burnout, illness, and death, but it's - even without a pension bonus that's being offered to some of the older teachers, people leaving the schools are up by 50 percent from last year.

And they're not paid chump change, either. I mean folks in the Chicago public school system are actually earning six figures at the top of the pay scale once they get there.

So, I guess, given that there's a teacher shortage all across the country, E.R., what do you do when you basically have a huge generational change that happens very rapidly like this?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, you probably embrace it. And it seems that some forward-thinking people in the Chicago system are casting a wide net, looking for very committed, perhaps much younger people who are to replace those who are leaving the system. It may be a case of panicking too soon, because as someone I read said, this might be a good thing to bring in the young, energetic people with fresh ideas.

Now the flip side of that, of course, is that if you're casting your nets so widely, you're bringing in people from all over the country who have no connection to the Chicago schools. They may be a bit overwhelmed initially.

So if they are still to think with vision in Chicago, there should be some way to bring in these new people and have them mentored by some of those who've been around for a while, by some people who know more about the Chicago schools. But I think it could be a good thing to have this generational change.

CHIDEYA: Now, Jeff, what do you feel about that?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: Well, I think it, you know, you deal - and I've said this a million times before, you get what you inspect and not what you expect. And the fact is that when you inspect the situation in Chicago, you'd have 126 positions wide open, and not just, as you said, teaching positions. They're positions of leadership.

And the culture of the school is defined not only by the school system itself, but by the leader of the school itself. And that's why principals are a high commodity. That's why Chicago's public schools is investing $100,000-plus in the salary of a principal. You have to, in many districts, have the largest school in the district to think of making anywhere near that kind of money in major cities.

So I think that that's the situation. It's a fact. I think there's something to be said about our youth in being able to bring in fresh ideas. But there's also something to be said about sometimes outside people. And in this case in Chicago, they're actually using a headhunting firm to try to do national searches to bring in people from different parts of the country to work in the school system.

There's something to be said about the notion of the fear of outsiders. People coming in, people who are in their early 30s who may not have spent as much time in the classroom. And that tends to cause problems in the academic environment, especially when there are people who have been there a long time trying to work through the system.

So I think we haven't seen this totally played out. I don't they're going to have a problem attracting people to Chicago for these jobs because, as we all know, in the field of education - those of us who work in education know that education is not the highest paying job in America and it doesn't seem to be very much a priority.

So sometimes teachers and principals, administrators, they go seeking places that appreciate them financially. So I don't think they're going to have a problem filling the positions. But whether they'll be fully accepted, I think there's going to be a rough adjustment period and we'll see how it plays out.

CHIDEYA: Glenn, one thing that strikes me here is that, you know, bouncing off from what Jeff said, there is real money on the table. And there have been some interesting crosscurrents around whether or not teachers should be paid more, how much more, whether there should be merit pay or seniority-based pay. Do you have any thoughts on those issues that keep coming up?

Prof. LOURY: I do. I mean, I noticed those $100,000-plus salaries for, you know, thirty-something principals myself. Not that I'm interested in principaling, but I'm saying, you know, that's a pretty good salary. And teachers are underpaid. I don't think there's any way around that.

Given the stakes as between, you know, good education for a classroom full of youngsters and mediocre education for a classroom full of youngsters, the stakes that society has in that outcome being the first and not the second, $100,000 a year for somebody who can really do a good job running a public school, you know, it's cheap at twice the price.

So, you know, I mean there's a complex story about why teachers are underpaid. I mean, they are public employees and they don't get no respect. I mean, the reputation of the profession is not that great, and it's being beaten up on quite a bit, and I think sometimes quite unfairly.

But just like the people who take care of our children in preschool and the people who take care of our elders in the nursing homes and so forth, our society doesn't always value the kind of service that is really fundamental to the development of our people that's being provided by these professions.

So I think that this is an experiment worth watching. I mean, the point of young people coming in from the outside and then having to deal with incumbent employees who are going to be resentful, perhaps, at being passed over or who have a different culture or whatever, that could be a problem of implementation.

But I like very much the idea also that the city wants to place these principals in the districts where, you know, the neighborhoods are toughest, where the incomes are lowest, where the children are having the most trouble because that's where the talented leadership is most needed. And so I think this is a good thing, overall.

CHIDEYA: Speed round because we don't have very much time left. A non-segregated prom. That may sound like a weird headline, and it should be just like duh. But actually in Ashburn, Georgia, 75 miles south of Macon, it's been a segregated affair for years.

White students had their own unofficial proms, so did black students. But on April 21st, Turner County High will hold it's first all-school prom. About half of the students have bought tickets. There's rumors of a rival prom happening by the lakeside if you don't want to race mix and upset yourself or your parents.

And it just strikes me how different some people's experiences are. In some places, you couldn't even have a prom if it wasn't for race mixing because there's like five people in each group. Is this just a sign of America's diversity for good, bad and ugly, Jeff?

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: What I think it's - in this case, the problem began systematically. The school not sponsoring a prom for any number of reasons so the white kids starting their own kind of off the record event, then the black kids followed suit, and everybody wants to have something so it's for their own good.

I think it's pretty sad the school didn't fix this problem sooner, but it's admirable that two groups of students - and it's always the young people who don't see this kind of things as social constructs as much until they get taught to see them as they're older that come together - they came together to make this joint prom happen. So I'm hoping that, again, that will at least solve part of the problem. But here again somebody is talking about throwing an alternate party by the lake.

CHIDEYA: Very briefly, E.R.

Prof. SHIPP: Yeah. I'm glad that these young people have stepped up and said let's try anyway. I remember integrating a public bathroom in a courthouse in 1977 in this same part of the world, in Georgia. And in '89 returning there and discovering that the doctors' offices were still segregated, whites only and color only, without the signs.

This kind of thing still continues in the rural parts of the South. So it's not just limited to Georgia. So for this to work…

CHIDEYA: I'm going to have to jump in.

Prof. SHIPP: I'm sorry. I hope it works out.

CHIDEYA: All right. Glenn, just a hair of time.

Prof. LOURY: Oh, yeah. Well, you know, those times, they are a changing. Race is not a fixed thing. It's a construct, as Jeff mentioned. And we get to make it up anew each generation. So these kids are, to some degree, stepping out away from the worldview of their parents, and I think that's a good thing.

One of the things that I was wondering as I was reading the story was, you know, well, is there like a lot of interracial dating going on here, and so the kids want to have a unified prom so that they can go with their boyfriend and not upset everybody.

CHIDEYA: We're going to have to leave it there. Leave it to speculation…

Mr. OBAFEMI CARR: I bet they have an (Unintelligible) to this program.

CHIDEYA: Or somebody throw those pictures up on the Internet. From member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island, Glenn Loury of Brown University; Jeff Obafemi Carr from Spotland Studios in Nashville, Tennessee; and from NPR New York, E.R. Shipp, professor of journalism at Hofstra University.

Next on NEWS & NOTES: A Village Voice critic and his take on our staff music pick of the week, and a new fiction anthology on "New Orleans Noir."

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