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Officials seek reform for abstinence education

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Every three months Peggy Lawler starts preparing to have the utilities turned off in the small house where she runs an abstinence-only education program for Dale County's youth.

The program is one of eight in Alabama that receive money from the federal Title V fund, which provides $50 million annually to similar programs nationwide and has been renewed on a quarterly basis the past four fiscal years.

A six-month extension that was granted in December expired June 30, but abstinence educators' fears were eased when the House this week approved another three-month extension and sent it to be signed by President Bush.

The close call has renewed their cries against the "Band-Aid" approach to appropriations and say longer-term funding is needed to stop the cycle of uncertainty. In Alabama, which receives more than $950,000 over 12 months, the eight programs reach 42,000 students ages 10-19 in 38 of the state's 67 counties.

"It really puts those schools in a bind in terms of planning," Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association said Friday. "While we really applaud the bipartisan support for the extension of three months ... it is our hope that it will be continued on to the next fiscal year."

More concerns

Huber said another concern is that the current extension expires in September — just at the time when the 2007-08 school year will be starting. While programs plan and have some summer classes, the bulk of their work is done during the academic year, she said.

Democratic leaders have questioned the effectiveness of abstinence-only education and some critics of the programs point to an April report by Mathematic Policy Research Inc., which studied four such programs over 10 years and found that youths who participated were no more likely to abstain from sex than those who weren't involved.

Pat Paluzzi, president and CEO of the Healthy Teen Network, said the Washington, D.C.-based group supports comprehensive education that is based on abstinence and includes contraception and prevention.

"We've been pushing for some of this money to be directed in two ways — comprehensive education and support for pregnant and parenting teens," she said. Abstinence-only "has not been proven effective and we think it is a waste of money."

Lawler, whose program receives $66,212 to reach more than 1,000 students each year, said she had already cut off the utilities and notified instructors that the program would be ending before the House approved the extension Wednesday.

"It would be great if we didn't have to go through this roller coaster every three months," she said. "It would be great if the could renew it for a five-year contract. Obviously it would be better if they could have a one-year extension instead of every three months."

Some of the programs were already in operation using private funds before Alabama began implementing Title V in 1998 and could remain in a smaller capacity without the federal money, said Susan Stewart, who directs the state health department's Abstinence-Until-Marriage Education Program.

But she said others — like Lawler's that are fully funded by Title V — would end immediately.

"Since December we have asked that it be reauthorized, not extended because that's a Band-Aid kind of thing knowing that at any time it can be canceled," Stewart said. Over the next three months, she said, efforts will be made to encourage Congress to reauthorize.

Paluzzi said advocates for more comprehensive education will be working harder in the next three months, too.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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