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Inside The Law

Inside the Law


Debating Sex Ed

A group of 11 witnesses recently appeared before a House committee to debate the federal funding of abstinence-only sex education in public schools amid questions about whether the government should sponsor a program that many experts say doesn't work.

In front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the witnesses advocated instead for comprehensive programs that include information on how teens can protect themselves from pregnancy or disease should they decide to engage in sexual behavior.

"The concern that many of us have with abstinence-only programs is the idea that one size fits all," said Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a member of the panel.

Both sides agree that abstinence should be taught to some degree in all sex education programs, but critics of comprehensive approaches say society should set high standards for teenage sexual behavior and students should be taught to consider the repercussions of sex outside of marriage.

The debate was held as two bills move through the Florida legislature mandating that starting in the sixth grade, all students must learn about contraceptives and "sexual decision making." Florida law currently prefers abstinence instruction but doesn't mandate it; some districts only teach abstinence, while others teach students about condoms and birth-control pills.

Education Secretary Boldly Sidesteps No Child Left Behind

In a last-ditch effort to improve and clarify the federal No Child Left Behind law before the end of the Bush administration, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings recently used her executive powers to propose a sweeping new set of regulations, including requiring student subgroups to meet graduation targets as opposed to entire high school senior classes, as the law mandates now.

"At the president's request, I'm moving forward to empower educators to take actions that families have been waiting for," the secretary said in a speech at the Detroit Economic Club.

But it is debatable whether the proposed changes - which do not need congressional approval - will actually improve the law and address the longstanding criticisms it has generated, since they offer just as many new mandates as flexibilities.

Several of the proposed regulations seek to clarify elements of the law that demand schools be accountable in their reporting to the public, requiring that states publish data from the Nation's Report Card alongside data from their own tests.

Spellings is also proposing rules to ensure parents are notified in a timely way about public school choice and supplemental educational services. These rules would require that schools publicize open spots at higher-performing schools at least 14 days before school starts and would ensure that states provide more information about what tutoring providers are available.

Additionally, the secretary reiterated the need for a uniform graduation rate, as previously covered in DA (Inside the Law, May 2008), and set a deadline of 2013 for all states to use the same formula. In the meantime, states will be responsible for meeting their own graduation rate goals for all subgroups in order to make AYP, or they will face sanctions.

"This is the boldest sidestep around the Congress that I've ever seen," says Bruce Hunter, a lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. "I'd be surprised if lawmakers let this go."

The administration is seeking public comments before finalizing the regulations in the fall.