More than 150 schools in Illinois, including 22 in Chicago, used a sex education curriculum last year that focused on abstinence as birth control.
Under state law, the schools were required to also provide information about contraception.
Last week, the Illinois State Board of Education re-upped its $1.8 million annual federal contract to offer abstinence-based sex ed in Illinois schools, even as research shows that encouraging young people not to have sex does little to limit pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease.
Sex education is optional in Illinois. However, the state requires any district, like Chicago, that chooses to teach must include information about both contraception and abstinence.
Only one State Board of Education member protested the grant, when the board OK’d it earlier this month on an 8-to-1 vote. “What has been reported to us is there is no evidence of measurable outcomes,” board member Cristina Pacione-Zayas said. “We have no understanding of behavioral outcomes.”
The board passed the vote without an extended discussion, but board head Carmen Ayala said she didn’t want to cut off the grant, which the state administers, because districts relied on it to fund some of their sexual education classes.
The Sexual Risk Avoidance Education program, administered by the state board since 2017, uses an abstinence-based curriculum targeted at young people ages 10 to 19 that does not include contraception. It was created under the 1996 federal welfare reform act signed by then-President Bill Clinton that tied efforts to change people’s behavior.
Fifteen other states also receive the grant, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
In Illinois, Scott Phelps, who runs A & M Research, a company contracted to provide supplemental abstinence-based curriculum and teacher training to schools around Illinois, said his group sees abstinence as a tool in combating poverty.
“We are tasked with helping young people understand that, if they reserve sexual activity and childbearing until marriage, their children have a much better chance of avoiding poverty,” Phelps said.
But research by the Brookings Institution found that idea was simplistic, and that it works better in communities not struggling under the impact of low-wage work and generational poverty.
Phelps said that schools use his curriculum, which runs from two to eight class periods, in addition to comprehensive sex education. “It wouldn’t make sense to repeat what the comprehensive sex education does,” he said.
Chicago Public Schools mandates sex education in its schools. Health educators put together what advocates consider a mostly comprehensive sex-education curriculum, but schools can also hire a non-profit to teach lessons approved by the district’s Office of Student Health and Wellness.
Principals of the 17 schools in Chicago did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, Chicago Public Schools said it is committed to providing comprehensive sexual education. “Any curriculum or partner organization that doesn’t meet our standards is not authorized in our schools,” the statement read.
Any abstinence-based education alarms some sexual health educators in Chicago.
“When sex outside of marriage is shamed and stigmatized, young people miss out on critical — and sometimes lifesaving — information and skills,” said Lisa Walker, assistant vice president of programs and strategic learning at Peer Health Exchange, which contracts with district schools to teach sexual education. “This is particularly true for queer and trans young people, whose identities are often invalidated through programs that focus exclusively on abstinence.”
The board’s approval of the contract comes as some immigrant Latino parents in Chicago are pushing the school district for more comprehensive sex education to counter sexual abuse and gender-based violence.
Since 2017, Illinois has received and spent more than $5 million on the abstinence-based program for more than 17,000 young people across the state.