JACKSON, Miss. – One private company has the lion’s share of the Mississippi sex education market. It’s called “Choosing the Best” and it stands to take home hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s also not proven to work.
“Choosing the Best” is a longstanding abstinence-until-marriage program. It’s been taught in Mississippi for more than a decade. And while it now offers contraceptive lessons, its basic abstinence-until-marriage message is still popular, especially in Bible Belt states such as Mississippi.
In Lexington, Mississippi, a local church teamed up with the Governor’s office and DHS to organize an abstinence revival. No fewer than a dozen people took turns at the pulpit.
Local judge, Janie Lewis, preached to a mostly adult crowd: lawmakers, state workers, community leaders and church members.
“Every time you make that reckless choice to have sex outside of marriage, you are robbing yourself of life,” Lewis says, pausing for emphasis. A couple “amens” are called from the crowd.
The Mississippi state government has funneled tens of millions of dollars into abstinence initiatives over the years. But Mississippi still has the highest teen-pregnancy rates in the country and, critics say, state officials still prefer abstinence-until-marriage sex education programs such as “Choosing the Best” in schools.
State officials say not true. So the Southern Education Desk decided to follow the money. Our investigation found a surge cash flow in 2011 to “Choosing the Best” from the Mississippi Department of Education. Available funds jumped from about two thousand dollars in 2009 and 2010 to more than half a million in 2011.
Sanford Johnson, an evidence-based sex education advocate with Mississippi First, says that influx of money, training and material may have created an incentive.
“I can tell you some of the districts, some of the ones that decided to stick in Abstinence Only, did so because they already had teachers trained,”
Districts such as South Pike in rural southern Mississippi. Linda Wall, jr. high school counselor, says grants from the Mississippi Department of Education came just in time for the new law.
“We knew this was coming so we had to start looking for ways to pay for it because we knew the funding would not be there,” says Wall.
Though she reviewed other programs, Wall says having money for books and training up front made it an easy decision to stick with “Choosing the Best.”
That’s where much of the controversy lies. Some say handing out money before the curricula review and approval process was complete is putting the cart before the horse. But Scott Clements of the Department of Education says federal grant deadlines made it impossible to wait – that the money had to be spent before the review panel finished approving sex ed curricula.
“The opportunity there was to provide teachers the training through MDHS grant funding,” says Clements. “We, inside our office, really didn’t have the expertise or materials to choose, and were recommended to choose “Choosing the Best” from Human Services.”
If exclusive grants for “Choosing the Best” were critics’ first concern, the second was the make-up of the review committee. MDE maintains that the review committee met in seclusion to prevent members from undue influence, but at the same she was sitting on the review panel, MDE employee Estelle Watts was leading a “Choosing the Best” teacher training. Another reviewer Bettie Miller, attended the training, too. Critics cry conflict of interest, but Miller says she was only concerned with making sure curricula were in keeping with state law.
“That’s what I’m concerned about,” says Miller. “Are the objectives in our health curriculum for state being reached? Is the objective in the law being reached? Are we teaching what we need to be teaching?”
Both Watts and Miller inaccurately awarded points to “Choosing the Best” as being evidence-based – in other words, having a track record proved by scientific data. That inflated the program’s overall score.
Last, critics say allowing “Choosing the Best” to be both Abstinence Only and Abstinence Plus makes little sense. Under Mississippi law, Abstinence Only programs limit the teaching of prevention methods to abstinence alone: Abstinence Plus also includes lessons about contraceptives. Carol Penick of the Women’s Fund says it’s irrational to approve “Choosing the Best”- a program that has been funded federally as Abstinence Only for decades – to be approved as a legitimate program for teaching the use of contraception as well.
“We think it is very conflicting to have any curriculum to be named both Abstinence Only and Abstinence Plus,” says Penick. “It’s like saying you are a boy and you are a girl. You can’t be both!”
The Mississippi Department of Education says they are reviewing their sex education evaluation procedures. Meanwhile, critics of “Choosing the Best” threaten the possibility of a lawsuit.
The Southern Education Desk obtained five documents showing money going from the Mississippi Department of Education exclusively to “Choosing the Best.” This one shows a potential payout of $569,000. All other documents can be found here.