Sunday was the anniversary of Title IX, the Education Amendment that prohibits sex discrimination in public education, including discrimination against pregnant and parenting students. Many Americans primarily associate Title IX with its dramatic impact on young women’s opportunities to play sports; however, the spirit of Title IX is far more encompassing. While great progress has been made since the early 1970s to ensure that girls and women have equal opportunities to get a quality education, many barriers remain—especially for pregnant and parenting students.According to a report by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), pregnant and parenting youth still often face discrimination at school that violates their legal rights under Title IX. Tremendous stigma surrounds teen pregnancy, and some teachers and school staff still assume that pregnant students will inevitably drop out. The report finds that these negative assumptions about pregnant and parenting youth often lead to overt discrimination such as the illegal expulsion of pregnant students, pressuring these students into enrolling in low-quality ‘alternative’ education programs, refusing to excuse absences for medical appointments or even childbirth, and not letting students make up work that they missed when absent due to pregnancy. Pregnant students are often denied the services available to other students with temporary medical conditions including home or hospital-based instruction. Although schools are required under the law to have Title IX coordinators to ensure that claims of sex discrimination are addressed, some schools either have a coordinator who does not know what his or her responsibilities are or have no coordinator at all.
The report emphasizes that rather than pregnancy being the end of the road for students, it can be a powerful motivating factor in encouraging formerly disengaged students to succeed in school and in their careers in order to provide their children with a better life. The report also argues that pregnancy is not the root cause of lack of educational achievement among students, but rather that factors like poverty, lack of access to health information and care, and a weak support system are the underlying factors that increase students’ risk of both teen pregnancy and low educational attainment. If students do not complete high school, it becomes far more difficult for them to go on to college or access jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage. With a young child to look after, it becomes even more critical for young parents to be able to earn a good living. Yet the child that may motivate a parenting student to succeed may be viewed by school staff as a liability and a reason to write the student off as ‘hopeless’.
Some states have enacted policies to support pregnant and parenting youth in continuing their education and developing the parenting and life skills they will need to raise a child. The District of Columbia’s New Heights program serves pregnant and parenting youth at 14 DC public schools using a youth development framework. The New Heights program provides supportive case management and educational workshops for expectant and parenting (male and female) students enrolled in DC public high schools. The program includes assistance with securing services such as child care vouchers, food assistance, job training opportunities, as well as workshops on topics such as pre-natal care, parenting, life skills, financial literacy, career planning, healthy relationships and other issues.
The California School Age Families Education (Cal-SAFE) program provides students with academic and support services to finish their education, build parenting skills and enroll their children in child care and development programs. According to a 2010 report to the California state legislature:
· Over 73% of the students who left the Cal-SAFE Program had successfully completed their high school education (compared with the 40% completion rate for teen mothers nationally)
· Only 8.47% of the babies born while their parents were enrolled in the program represented repeat pregnancies compared with the 20% national repeat birth rate in 2004
· Only a 6.7% rate of low birth weight among children born to parents enrolled in Cal-SAFE, significantly lower than the national rate of 13.4% for mothers under 15, and 10% for mothers aged 15-19
· Over 60% of the children of Cal-SAFE students attended a child care center funded by the Cal-SAFE Program and received services based on assessed developmental needs.
· Over 94% of the children enrolled in the program were up-to-date on their immunizations, substantially higher than the rates for all children ages 19-35 months nationally (82%) and in California (81%)
Unfortunately, many programs to support pregnant and parenting youth face budget cuts. In California, for example, the Cal-SAFE program showed a major drop over three consecutive years in the number of youth served after its funding was changed to a block grant with more flexible requirements for school districts, allowing schools to move funding away from the program. Prior to the funding change, participation had grown for eight straight years since the program was introduced.
One option for states looking to fund improved services for pregnant and parenting youth is the Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF). The Affordable Care Act created this $25 million competitive grant program to provide pregnant and parenting teens and women with a network of supportive services to help them continue their education and access critical supports such as health care, child care and family housing. The funds can also be used to improve services for pregnant women who are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. So far state and tribal entities in 16 states and the District of Columbia have received grants for up to three years to develop and implement programs.
Title IX is the minimum legal requirement for schools, but it is only a beginning. Federal law leaves a lot of room for state policymakers to develop strategies to promote the well-being of pregnant and parenting youth and their children. State policymakers may wish to consider reviewing how well schools in their state protect the rights of students to have equal access to education regardless of their gender. They may also want to consider what programs are currently in place to support pregnant and parenting youth and explore research-informed approaches that have produced positive results for young families.
For more information about how to reduce teen and unplanned pregnancies, as well as how to increase high school graduation rates, please visit PolicyforResults.org. For CSSP resources on supporting pregnant and parenting youth who are also involved in the child welfare system click here.