State Gives Up on Feds’ Peek-a-boo Game on Abstinence Funding

Like tempestuous teenagers, federal lawmakers can’t make up their minds how to fund an abstinence-only program — if at all. So, Colorado took matters into her own hands.The end of a controversial federal abstinence-only grant program in Colorado didn’t come about because of intense lobbying by comprehensive sex education advocates, budget cuts or research citing its ineffectiveness at curbing teen pregnancy. It was bureaucratic red tape that did it in.

Dr. Ned Calonge, Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment’s chief medical officer, confirmed to Colorado Confidential that the state did not renew its request for Title V funds, one of three primary federal funding streams allocated by Congress.

While Calonge agreed that there is overwhelming evidence that abstinence-until-marriage programs are not effective, he disputed the suggestion by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) that Colorado joined 12 other states in declining further Title V funding on philosophical grounds.

The reasons were far less sexy.

“Well, it’s a little different than that,” he said. “We just made the decision not to reapply.”

Calonge acknowledged that the health department’s conclusion was influenced by the on-going battle on Capitol Hill over the funding bloc’s continuation. Last April, an independent study [PDF]” by Mathematica Policy Research confirmed an earlier General Accountability Office report that the programs had no impact on teens’ sexual abstinence rates.

Shortly after the report was released, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Michigan) and co-chair Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Denver) successfully eliminated continued funding for Title V from a spending bill under consideration by their committee. Dingell has described abstinence-only programs as “a colossal failure” while DeGette called them “a waste of money” in a July 2007 radio interview.

Backed by Wisconsin representative David Obey, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, conservative lawmakers bypassed Dingell’s committee and won an emergency 90-day funding package for the program in July and another three-month reprieve in September that will sustain the program through year’s end. Continued funding for Title V remains up in the air.

That’s when state bureaucracy stepped in and solved the problem with unblinking precision.

“The continuing resolution doesn’t mesh with our state controller laws,” Calonge explained. “They basically told us in July that the program was not funded. And then it was reauthorized for 90 days. The state purchasing system doesn’t allow us to get bids and money out in that time frame. By the time we would have been able to put money out the door it would have been 90 days (when the July-September reprieve was slated to end). Then they reauthorized it for a second 90 days, but there’s no way that we could predict that they were going to do that.”

“So, we’ve actually closed down the program, and we’re not putting any Title V money out the door now,” he said. Colorado continues to accept other federal funding that includes abstinence as a part of comprehensive sex education.

But local reproductive health advocates shouldn’t pop the champagne corks just yet.

As Calonge noted, all of the grantees that were previously awarded Title V grants can apply directly to the federal government for continued support, effectively bypassing the state which served as the contract monitor to ensure programs were meeting their obligations.

According to Gaye Morrison, Weld Waits, a school and community-based abstinence and relationship education program, the Weld County Commissioners were concerned as early as 2000 about fleeting federal dollars and began to fund the program with local dollars.

The spokeswoman for the Weld County Department of Public Health and the Environment admitted that the program cut back on programming and media outreach this summer when the continuation of last year’s $65,000 Title V grant was in peril. However, the program continues with another annual $100,000 cash boost from the county while Weld Waits seeks replacement funding through other grant sources.

Morrison added that the loss of Title V money “gives us more flexibility to talk about contraception,” which is discouraged within the strict confines of federally funded abstinence-only programs.

Last year, the state received $488,314 in Title V grants representing just 14 percent of a total $3.5 million annual allocation of federal abstinence-only program funding.