A shift is occurring in Texas as more school districts move from abstinence-only programs to a comprehensive approach that teaches about condoms and other contraceptives, according to an advocacy group's study of state data.
In 2007, about 4 percent of the state's school districts used comprehensive programs, according to a study by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a research group that supports the comprehensive approach known as abstinence-plus. A more recent analysis, based on data from a Texas Education Agency health education survey, found that nearly 25 percent of school districts had abstinence-plus programs in 2010.
"That's a huge increase in a three-year period," said Kathy Miller, president of the education fund. "The quiet revolution is taking place at the local level."
TEA says the group's research is probably accurate. The agency "is seeing a little bit of movement" based on anecdotal information, said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.
Abstinence-plus advocates say school officials, backed by parents, can see that what they've been doing isn't reducing teen pregnancies. Abstinence-only supporters counter that a decline in state teen birth rates shows that abstinence-only is effective.
Recent state and local studies show that most parents, as well as the general public, favor a more balanced approach.
Income level a factor
In Harris County, 93 percent of parents support school-based sex education, and about 70 percent support abstinence-plus programs in middle school or earlier, according a study by the Prevention Research Center at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. National studies have shown similar results.
The state's teen birth rates are down over the last decade, but remain higher than the national rate.
Texas has the third-highest rate — 63 per 1,000 births — for girls 15 to 19, and the second-highest rate of multiple births for girls 15 to 19. Ten percent of sixth-graders have had sex, and by 12th grade 70 percent of teens have had sex, translating to more than 800,000 sexually experienced teens in Texas, the research center found.
Harris County's teen birth rate is the same as the state's. A map developed by the research center shows that numerous areas in the county have birth rates well above the national and state averages.
Socioeconomic factors have a lot to do with the varying rates. Low-income areas have less access to clinics and contraceptives, researchers said.
Changes in funding
National studies, including a 2007 study mandated by Congress, have shown that abstinence-only programs do not stop teens from having sex, research center director Susan Tortolero said.
But federal funding over the past decade has supported abstinence-only programs, and Texas has led the nation in receiving those dollars.
That might change under President Barack Obama, who has poured more federal money into evidence-based, abstinence-plus programs.
Nationally, about one-third of schools teach abstinence-only, about one-third have comprehensive programs, and one-third do not teach sex education at all, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
Jonathan Saenz, director of legislative affairs for Liberty Institute, an Austin-based religious rights organization, says there's no proof that evidence-based programs work better than abstinence-only programs.
"When it comes to teaching about smoking, we don't give them a cigarette and tell them to puff less," Saenz said. "We tell them what we know: They should never do it. School children deserve more focus on the method that works 100 percent of the time, and nothing less."
Saenz said he fears teen pregnancies will go up dramatically if more schools ditch the abstinence-only approach. But research shows U.S. teen birth rates have declined mostly because of increased use of contraceptives and more reliable contraceptives.
Texas doesn't require schools to teach sex education. If they do, Texas Education Code says they may mention condoms and contraceptives, but must emphasize abstinence until marriage.
The result has been inconsistent approaches across the state.
Both sides agree that the best education starts at home, and that working with parents is part of the solution.
New program spreading
About seven years ago, the research center began developing a federally funded, evidence-based abstinence-plus program for middle school students; it's now in 10 school districts, reaching more than 20,000 students.