The Evaluation of Abstinence Education Programs Funded Under Title V Section 510: Interim Report . Title V Section 510 Abstinence Funds Are Changing the Local Landscape of Approaches to Preventing Teen Pregnancy

04/01/2002

Funding for abstinence education has contributed to the evolving national struggle to address the social and economic consequences of teenage sexual activity, teenage childbearing, and out-of-wedlock births.  Following considerable and sometimes rancorous controversy over whether and how to spend the $50 million in annual abstinence education block grant funds, every state ultimately applied for the money.  In each of the successive funding years, nearly all of the states and territories took advantage of the funds available to them.

In 1988, only 2 percent of teachers responsible for sexuality education in public secondary schools reported teaching abstinence as the sole way to prevent pregnancy and STDs; by 1999, this figure had risen to 23 percent of secondary school sexuality education teachers (Darroch, et al. 2000).

Three factors help explain the current extent of acceptance of abstinence education.  First, the Section 510 abstinence education programs implemented across the country have gained support because they are more than “Just Say No” programs.  They offer a breadth of services and activities designed to support youth, equip them with knowledge and decision-making skills to help them make good choices, and provide them with constructive activities that are fun and widely perceived as good for kids.  Second, many programs focus on middle school students, where there is general agreement about the appropriateness of a strong abstinence approach to sexual education.  Finally, the coalitions formed at the local level to deliver the abstinence message often bridge a gap in ideological perspectives, allowing abstinence education programs to coexist with other programs that respond in a variety of ways to the needs of teens and their communities.

The Section 510 abstinence education funding supports more than 700 programs nationwide and has resulted in a tremendous range of new programmatic approaches to preventing teen sexual activity and out-of-wedlock pregnancy (Maternal and Child Health Bureau 2000).  The amounts awarded to local grantees by states vary widely.  For example, among the programs included in the evaluation, annual award amounts range from $50,000 to over $800,000. States have awarded abstinence education grants to community-based organizations, local school districts, local health departments, faith-based organizations, and universities, among others.  The funding guidelines encourage states to fund grantees’ efforts directed at local priority needs, and the diversity of uses of funding reflects this intent (Maternal and Child Health Bureau 1997).  Local grantees use funds for community-based projects, as well as for evaluation and program monitoring, technical assistance and training, media campaigns, advisory councils, resource and communication networks, toll-free hotlines, and satellite conferences.

Number of States Grantees
38 Community-based organizations
29 Local Boards of Education/School Districts/Schools
27 Youth Serving Organizations
23 Local Health Departments
22 Faith-Based Organizations
19 Universities
17 Local Coalitions/Partnerships/Advocacy Groups
17 Consultants/Contractors
16 Media/Research Firms
15 Health Care Organizations
14 Non-Profit Organizations
SOURCE:  Maternal and Child Health Bureau (200).

The core of all these efforts is a message about the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity, which most often is delivered through a curriculum-based program in a school setting.  This approach, which often has a youth development component, frequently is referred to as character-based education or “assets building.”  Other common efforts include adult mentoring, peer mentoring, parent education, before- and after-school programs, and recreational-based activities.  More broadly based initiatives include curriculum development, public awareness campaigns, and community partnership development (Maternal and Child Health Bureau 2000).

The majority of programs aim their abstinence message at middle school students.  However, some target a wider age spectrum, starting younger and persisting longer.  Many also target high school youth, and a few target out-of-school youth.  Resource constraints lead many programs to limit their selection of a target population.

Focusing on youth of middle school age or younger has helped some communities resolve the debate between those who favor an “abstinence-only” approach and those who favor an “abstinence-plus-contraception” approach.  The emerging consensus that the middle school years are an appropriate time to offer these interventions suggests some agreement that a message of abstinence is an important foundation for all efforts at youth risk avoidance and pregnancy prevention.