Report: Tenn. family life guidelines are unclear

Hank Hayes • Apr 18, 2007 at 12:21 PM

There is "no clear definition" of family life education in Tennessee's school systems, and state law does not speak clearly to the issue of teen sexual activity, a state comptroller's report has found.

The report noted local school systems have formed their own goals for family life education, with most of them focusing on reducing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and promoting sexual abstinence until marriage.

But the report, done by the comptroller's Office of Education Accountability, pointed out that a state-level family life education plan does not exist.

"Currently, state-level guidance is minimal for family life education," the report said. "The state could provide more direction without taking ultimate control away from local education agencies (LEAs). The result could be a more streamlined, consistent approach, as well as programs that LEAs could more easily monitor."

To address the situation, the comptroller's office said lawmakers could pass a law recognizing school districts' current practices, consider supplemental funding to the state departments of education or health, or require LEAs to impart knowledge that is "medically or scientifically accurate." LEAs could also ask for help from the state Board of Education and Department of Education.

In 1989, state lawmakers passed a law requiring LEAs in counties with a pregnancy rate of at least 19.5 pregnancies per 1,000 females aged 15 through 17 to create a "family life" program. The law provided for the program to emphasize abstinence, the "obligations and consequences" arising from intimacy, and a component addressing AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. As of 2005, 79 counties met the pregnancy rate criteria, including Sullivan, Washington, Hawkins, Hancock, Greene and Carter counties.

The report said nationwide trends are showing a decline in teen pregnancy rates, but also disclosed these findings:

•Sixty-nine percent of Tennessee high school seniors have had sex.

•In 2005, Tennessee ranked 13th worst in gonorrhea rates and had the 12th-highest AIDS rate in the nation.

•The highest teen pregnancy rates are still in the South, with the costs of teen childbearing in Tennessee totaling $181 million in 2004. In that year, babies born to mothers under the age of 20 made up 13 percent of all births in the state. The majority of these births were to unwed mothers.

The report pointed to four states - California, Vermont, Michigan and Georgia - that began initiating successful teen pregnancy prevention programs in the 1990s. Those states incorporated coordination among state agencies, family planning services, male responsibility programs and public awareness campaigns.

Getting resources, including finding family life instructors, is a challenge in Tennessee, the report found.Some examples of "guest speakers" and instructors in local family life programs included funeral directors, youth ministers, people living with AIDS, teen parents, and local physicians and nurses."Many LEAs do not have the staff or expertise to conduct solid, scientific evaluations of their family life education programs," the report said. "Other LEAs may feel that an evaluation is unnecessary. ... The state lacks guidelines for what constitutes a ‘qualified' family life education instructor, as well as state-level policies and procedures for utilizing the services of outside volunteers as family life instructors."

For more about the report go to www.comptroller.state.tn.us and click on "Audits and Reports."

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