Political Intelligence

IGNORANCE UNDRESSED

More than 100 speakers got graphic at the State Board of Education hearing on health textbooks July 14. A review panel has endorsed four of the textbooks submitted for approval as meeting Texas standards. At the hearing, however, doctors, parents, and students testified that when it comes to preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and pregnancy, these books haven’t got it covered.

The full board’s vote in November to accept or reject the textbooks will hinge on whether members find that the books meet state requirements to “analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness” of birth control and “barrier protection” methods like condoms, while “keeping in mind the effectiveness of remaining abstinent until marriage.”

Conservative board members Terri Leo (R-Spring) and David Bradley (R-Beaumont) say the books do meet these requirements. “The information is there, as required by law,” Leo told the board.

Texas law does not require sexual education classes. If a school district opts to teach it anyway, they are told to stress abstinence as the preferred method of preventing pregnancy and STDs. Teachers may discuss birth control only in terms of its failure rates, despite the fact that Texas has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country.

Textbook publishers have learned a lot since they took a wallop from the right during the last round of health textbook hearings in 1994. That time around, a crowd of mostly conservative speakers urged the state board to reject books that contained, among other shockers, a line drawing of a woman giving herself a breast exam. This time, publishers have boned up on how to satisfy state standards—and to court the right-wing element that increasingly controls local school boards across the state. All four textbooks reference “abstinence before marriage” as the number one way to prevent pregnancy and STDs and to avoid “emotional trauma.” One book adds “maintain a good reputation” to the ledger of the chaste. Another textbook, published by Austin-based firm Holt, Rinehart and Winston, lists “getting plenty of rest” and “going out with a group” as ways to prevent STDs, but does not mention condoms, dental dams, or other forms of barrier protection. Only one textbook uses the word “condom”; others contain fleeting references to “barrier protection,” only to discredit the method immediately as prone to failure. And none of the books contains a precise definition of “sexual activity,” leaving students more or less ignorant about what it is, exactly, that they are supposed to be abstaining from.

Waco high school student Erin Pack urged the board to reject the books. Pack says her abstinence-only health class provided students with no information about avoiding pregnancy or STDs other than scare tactics designed to frighten students out of having sex. “We were told ‘If you have sex, you will get an STD, period,'” Pack said.

Abstinence-only proponents supported the four textbooks, telling the board that since no contraceptive is 100 percent effective, it’s misleading to tell teens they can have “safe” sex. Speakers suggested that “comprehensive sex education”—which includes material about contraception and condoms—is linked to higher rates of STDs, teen pregnancy, and suicide. (Peer-reviewed medical studies show that comprehensive sexual education either has no effect on teen sexuality or may sometimes delay the decision to have sex.)

“Sex is more dangerous for teenagers than smoking,” says Dr. Joe McIlhaney, founder of the Austin-based Medical Institute on Sexual Health, which publishes pamphlets and videos about the dangers of condoms and benefits of abstinence. But other experts say the abstinence-only view doesn’t reflect reality.

“We feel that adolescents should remain abstinent,” says Dr. David Wiley, president of the Texas School Health Association. “We also recognize the reality of life, in that some day these students will need this information. Where are they supposed to learn this information if not in high school?”

Abstinence-only advocates point to studies showing that the real-world protection rates of condoms are considerably worse than the rates found under perfect laboratory conditions. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has found that latex condoms are highly effective in preventing gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV/AIDS when used correctly. Of course, before you can use them correctly, someone has to teach you how.

And while condoms may not be perfect, the abstinence approach has a few holes in it, too. A study published in the 2001 Journal of American Sociology found that 88 percent of teens who took the “virginity pledge” favored by the abstinence-only crowd did have sex before they were married and were about as likely to contract an STD as their un-pledged peers. The major difference between those who took a virginity pledge and those who did not: former pledgers were less likely to use contraception, less likely to know when they had an STD, and less likely to get an STD test.

The board will hold one more public hearing on the books on September 8. More to come.

FUTURE LEADERS CON GANAS

It’s safe to assume that most high school kids don’t spend their summers pondering Medicaid policy or brain-storming ways to spur economic development. For that matter, neither do most adults. For a select 18 or so high schoolers in El Paso every year, however, summer is a time to investigate, analyze, and offer solutions to the most pressing public policy problems facing their community and their state.

In 1998, State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso) and Mary Hull Caballero (wife of El Paso’s former mayor) founded the Community Scholars program, run by a nonprofit of the same name. Every summer, the organization hires high school students for an eight-week paid internship in public policy. The students, who are already in the top 20 percent of their class, must go through a rigorous process of interviews and research exercises in order to be accepted into the program. They are then assigned to topic groups, and, during the next two months, they morph into teenage policy wonks.

This summer, for example, high school sophomores and juniors examined the enormous overhaul of the state’s Health and Human Services Commission and the cuts to Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program that the Legislature passed last year. Those returning from the previous summer, who are juniors and seniors, analyzed the effects that the Medicaid and CHIP cuts are wreaking on El Paso. Students perform extensive background research and then interview state lawmakers and policy experts. They write in-depth research papers that offer policy recommendations and then present their findings and recommendations at a series of public events throughout the year, including presentations to lawmakers and agency heads in Austin. Before finishing their papers, the students must fact-check their numbers and call back sources to verify quotes (this likely makes them more thorough than most of the state’s professional journalists). A recent presentation on HB 2292 demonstrated that these students have a better grasp on the legislation than most legislators can muster.

“So much of our talent leaves after public education,” Shapleigh said. “By the end of the program [the students] have become real experts on public policy, and when they make presentations to 100 members of the rotary club….that feeling at the age of 18 is intoxicating.”

The goal of Community Scholars, which receives a mix of government and private funding, is not only to offer the El Paso community a source of information, but to cultivate the city’s next generation of leaders. Community Scholars’ Executive Director Veronica Escobar said she sees students form and develop a passion for improving their community. “When you can’t articulate the problems in your community, they can seem impossible to solve,” she said. “But once you understand them, and can articulate them, all of a sudden they don’t seem as large. Most of the students feel such a commitment that I hear them say things like, ‘I’m going to go away to college, but I’m going to come back because I know how to solve this [issue].’ It’s so heartening for the future of El Paso.”

ANYTHING YOU CAN DO I CAN DO BETTER

For more than 60 years the University of California has run the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the $2-billion-a-year lab north of Santa Fe, New Mexico where J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project team built the world’s first atomic bomb. But after a spate of security leaks compounded by an episode of fraudulent purchasing contracts (translation: using the company credit card to buy a whole lot of fun stuff) and a couple of missing plutonium vials, the U.S. Department of Energy has decided that someone else should have a shot at running the show. So guess who wants to manage the cowboys at Los Alamos? (Peter Nanos, the former Navy Admiral put in charge of Los Alamos last year refers to rogue scientists who don’t play by the rules as cowboys.) That’s right. Chomping at the bit are the UT Regents. Last February they authorized $500,000 to plan for a potential bid, the full cost of which is expected to be $6 million. So far the University has proceeded quietly, organizing a task force that is all-but-certain to recommend proceeding with a bid as soon as the DOE issues a formal request for proposal.

During the July 16 Board of Regents meeting, four people opposed to the bid were allowed to address the Board. Among them was State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Ft. Worth) who criticized the Board for its lack of openness about the nature of the work done at the lab. “Los Alamos is about building nuclear bombs. We cannot run away from that,” said Burnam. “The ‘new’ Los Alamos is about a new unilateral nuclear weapons race that is inappropriate in the 21st century.”

But anyone who with doubts about which way the wind was blowing wasn’t paying attention to Chancellor Mark Yudof (“Los Alamos is not a bomb factory as some have suggested”) or Richard Smalley, a Nobel Laureate from Rice University, brought in to address the Regents. During his brief presentation, Smalley managed to refer to “a temple of American science,” “one of the great scientific temples in this country,” and “a temple at Los Alamos.”

As it happens this is indeed a critical time for that great scientific temple. Earlier this month the lab was shut down after two classified disks were lost and a graduate intern suffered an eye injury caused by a laser that was supposed to be turned off.

“Just out of curiosity, what’s the latest excuse by the University of California for these disks being lost?” complained U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Ennis) during a congressional hearing. “I am totally fed up. If I knew something that we could do legislatively, I would do it… One thing we can do is recompete that contract and get the University of California that never seems to take anything seriously out of the loop.”

Hmmm . . .

THIS IS HEALTHY?

You know things are bad when you’re spawning more political scandals than Tom DeLay. The folks running the state’s Health and Human Services Commission accomplished this rare feat in July, enduring a woeful stretch of official scorn unlikely to subside anytime soon.

The first batch of bad news surfaced on July 8, when the state auditor’s office released a scathing report that documented how a lack of oversight led HHSC to overpay about $20 million over four years to New York-based Clarendon Insurance, one of the state’s main contractors for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. The Observer first reported much of this story last fall (see “Cashing in on CHIP,” Sept. 26, 2003). A brief refresher: In May 2000, the state contracted with Clarendon to administer CHIP in rural areas. Clarendon in turn handed an administrative subcontract to a married couple then unknown in state government, Michael and Rhonda Masters. The Masters founded a company consisting entirely of themselves and, initially working out of their home, became rich off CHIP funds. No one’s quite sure what tasks they performed, if any, yet the Masters received more than $5 million in improper state payments, according to the auditor’s report. The audit uncovered another $14 million in unnecessary handouts to Clarendon.

HHSC’s systemic lack of oversight of its contracts meant the agency had little idea how Clarendon dispersed public funds it received. Still, agency officials knew that all wasn’t copasetic with the Clarendon contract. As the Observer reported in September, HHSC actuary David Wilkes had warned the agency about inappropriate payments to Clarendon as early as 2002. HHSC spokesperson Kristie Zamrazil defended the agency recently, noting that HHSC had little choice but to work with Clarendon; the firm offered the only bid on the rural CHIP contract in 2000. Agency officials have also pledged more stringent oversight of state contractors.

Fallout from the Clarendon fiasco has already begun. Jason Cooke, the associate administrator responsible for the Clarendon deal, resigned last spring to “spend more time with [his] family” (it’s been widely speculated that Cooke stepped down at least in part because he knew the auditor’s report was looming). Clarendon, meanwhile, will surrender its CHIP contract in August. The Masters have put their west Austin mansion up for sale and skipped town for Florida, the Sunshine State.

After the audit’s release, a predictable political furor erupted. Gov. Rick Perry ordered the state’s attorney general to investigate. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn one-upped him and called for a federal probe. House Democrats harangued HHSC about the pitfalls of privatization. And on July 19, the Senate Finance Committee grilled HHSC administrators on how CHIP had turned into a government ATM for Clarendon and Masters.

A week after the auditor’s report, HHSC took another hit. The agency’s controversial second-in-command, Gregg Phillips, abruptly announced on July 16 that he too would step down in early September. Phillips, a former Republican campaign operative, has been one of the driving forces behind HHSC’s massive reorganization, which will privatize several core state functions and could “downsize” more than 10,000 state workers. Phillips said in a statement that he needed to attend to a “lingering health issue and spend more time with my family.”

It’s worth noting, however, that the day after Phillips’ resignation announcement, the Houston Chronicle reported that Phillips’ old friend Larry Temple, now director of the Texas Workforce Commission, helped steer a state contract to a company named Enterject. Phillips founded Enterject several years ago, and his wife still works for the company, the newspaper reported. (Temple was Phillips’ deputy in the mid-1990s when the two ideologues tried to privatize Mississippi’s welfare program, with disastrous results.)

Phillips and Temple denied to the Chronicle that there was anything untoward about the TWC contract. Phillips said he severed all contact with Enterject last year (except for his wife). He also pledged that, following his resignation, he wouldn’t work for an HHSC contractor, a revolving-door maneuver he used in Mississippi that spawned an ethics inquiry. There’s no shortage of opportunity, though: HHSC and Phillips have awarded contracts to nearly 100 private firms for work on the HHSC overhaul. With even more contracts on the way and a culture of cronyism seemingly endemic, more controversies may well follow.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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