Health Care

County health officials look for sex education funding after Kansas drops federal grants

Educational materials used in sexual education courses funded by federal Personal Responsibility Education Program grants. The abstinence-based programs teach about contraception and consent.
Educational materials used in sexual education courses funded by federal Personal Responsibility Education Program grants. The abstinence-based programs teach about contraception and consent.

Public health agencies in Wyandotte and Johnson counties are looking for funding to keep their sex education programs afloat after Kansas state officials declined to renew federal grants.

Since 2010, the two counties have used the grants to provide sex education courses in area schools with the aim of preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Each year, the state secured hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the courses through the federal Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) grants.

But earlier this year, state health department officials informed their counterparts in Wyandotte and Johnson counties that the state would decline to apply for the grants this year.

Wyandotte and Johnson were the only counties that used the money, which amounted to nearly $500,000 annually.

Both counties are still funded through the next school year. But after that, the programs will end unless the health departments find money elsewhere.

The federal government makes similar grants available to local agencies when states decline to apply, but those are competitive and the county health officials said they were unsure if they could secure funding in time to continue the program at all.

The decision came in an email without any prior discussion, said Greg Stephenson, personal health services manager for Wyandotte County’s public health department.

“We were disappointed,” Stephenson said. “The state’s the one who introduced this, and we jumped right on it. We’re not sure what we’re going to do.”

Stephenson said the sex education program is needed in Wyandotte County, which leads the state in teen pregnancy and four types of sexually transmitted infections: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV.

The PREP courses offer abstinence-based education that also covers issues of contraception and consent.

That makes it distinct from abstinence-only programs paid for by Title V funds. Kansas accepted almost $600,000 in those grants this year.

Stephenson said abstinence-only education was the rule in the 1990s.

“They were kind of the laughingstock of the scientific community because study after study showed they weren’t effective,” Stephenson said.

The PREP programs were created as part of the Affordable Care Act, and their educational materials approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Middle school students and high school students get different presentations. Students attend the courses with parent approval.

Kansas was one of seven states that decided not to take PREP grants this year, along with Florida, Texas, Virginia, Indiana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Missouri accepted $973,624.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment opted to not apply for the funds so that the state could stop acting as a middle-man, passing money along to local departments, said Cassie Sparks, a spokeswoman for the state health department.

The decision came more than a year before Kansas PREP funding is set to run out in 2017.

“That allows for a transition period for the local health departments to apply for funds,” Sparks said.

But public health officials in Wyandotte and Johnson county said they were not prepared for the transition, and applying for such grants can take months.

Johnson County, perhaps more than Wyandotte County, could be in a position to fund the programs locally, but that prospect is “uncertain,” said Lougene Marsh, director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

Marsh said she thought the PREP programs made a difference, promoting good decision-making along with sex education.

Teen pregnancy rates, which are linked with high school dropout rates and poverty, have declined across the country in recent years. That’s been true in Johnson County even before the PREP grants came, as the rate of pregnancy among adolescents dropped from 3.4 percent in the 1990s to 1.5 percent in 2012.

But, Marsh said, sex education has been important to that success, and if it is allowed to disappear in Johnson County, the community may lose some of those gains.

“In time, without any other steps taken, we could begin to see the rate of teen pregnancy increase,” Marsh said.