President Bill Clinton called teen pregnancy “our most serious social problem” in 1996, during his State of the Union speech. In the decades since, the number of teens becoming mothers has fallen dramatically.
In 1991, there were 61.8 births for every 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in the United States, compared with 15.4 per 1,000 in 2020. That’s a 75% drop. Yet many advocates believe that this issue is going to increase in importance in the coming years as more states pass laws to restrict abortion access.
The Education Writers Association spoke with Cassandra Mensah, counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, about proposed changes to Title IX to better support pregnant and parenting students, the need for better data, and holding districts accountable for supporting these students.
Why do many advocates think that teen pregnancy and parenting is going to increase in importance in the coming years?
Mensah: Only about a third of states, , mandate that schools provide students with sex education that is medically accurate. So teens in many states have basic misconceptions about how pregnancy occurs and options available if they do get pregnant.
If they did get pregnant and wanted an abortion, there are many barriers to access, including a lack of clinics and doctors; high cost; an 18-72-hour waiting period, etc. In addition, for teenagers, there are parental notification laws, a lack of transportation, cost etc.
Now, post-Roe, about half of states have or are expected to make abortions illegal, so it will be even more difficult to get an abortion and many advocates believe these restrictions will increase the number of teens who have to give birth and become parents.
Where can I find current and historical statistics about pregnant and parenting teens in my school district?
Mensah: Unfortunately, there is no federal requirement that schools collect data on the number of pregnant and parenting [teens]. That’s something we’d love to see change. The Centers for Disease Control does collect that data by age group, but we aren’t sure how many of those students are still enrolled in school as many pregnant and parenting teens drop out. Also, the nonprofit, Power to Decide (formerly called The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy) also collects national and state level information.
What are the educational outcomes for pregnant and parenting teens?
Mensah: Very poor. I do need to emphasize this is not because of the personal failing of these mothers or young people. It’s simply because we don’t prioritize offering the supports that pregnant parents and students need to stay in school. And so they’re left to balance their familial responsibilities, their own health, the health of their children on top of their education responsibilities. And on top of the discrimination and harassment that they face in schools.
Many are “pushed out,” even though under federal law, it’s unlawful to discriminate against a student because of their pregnancy, abortion, childbirth and recovery from those conditions. Sometimes these forms of discrimination are explicit; for example, one student who recently called our help line was kicked off of their Honor Roll Society Club because they were pregnant. The assumption being that she wouldn’t be able to complete her academic pursuits because of her pregnancy, which isn’t true. Sometimes it’s more subtle like teachers, punishing students for taking time off to care for child care needs or medical appointments.
As a result, educational outcomes for these students are very poor. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about half of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by age 22, compared with approximately 90% of their peers who do not give birth. Fewer than 2% of mothers under 18 complete college by age 30.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently released a resource to remind everyone, including schools, that discrimination based on pregnancy and related conditions is prohibited.
What are the changes in federal Title IX law that affect pregnant and parenting teens?
Mensah: Fifty years ago, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 went into effect. The law was intended to prohibit discrimination based on sex in any educational programs and activities — including academic, athletic and extracurricular — that receive federal funds.
The U.S. Department of Education has released proposed changes to Title IX, which haven’t been substantively modified since 1975. The proposed changes are, overall, a really positive and necessary step that could significantly help pregnant and parenting students stay in school. I worked on a guide explaining the differences between the current and proposed Title IX rules.
For example, the current regulations are silent on lactation rooms, but the proposed rules require schools to provide support for breastfeeding students, including a clean, private space in school that is not a bathroom. Also, currently schools have to give students time off for pregnancy and childbirth but sometimes don’t take into consideration other related issues that might affect their attendance. Under the proposed rules, schools will have to give teens time off for pregnancy for as long as a health care provider, not just a physician, deems necessary.
This rule also clarifies that Title IX coordinators have to train staff and employees about the rights of pregnant and parenting students, which previously the law was kind of silent on. The proposed rules say that once a Title IX coordinator becomes aware of a student’s pregnancy, they have to tell that student about what supports they can offer for them and what their rights are under the law.
The National Women’s Law Center, along with 75 current and former teen parents, have also released their recommendations for change.
This population is overlooked, despite the poor life outcomes associated with both the parent and child. What questions should reporters keep in mind while tackling stories about pregnant and parenting students?
Mensah: There have been studies of pregnant and parenting youths, young mothers in particular, who have said that becoming a parent increased their motivation to continue in their education, even if they were previously disengaged from school. Some advocates have called this “mommy motivation.”
- Reporters can highlight examples of students, schools and programs where parenting teens have received supports and graduated from not just high school but college.
- Do schools have explicit policies specifically for this population? Do students affected know about their rights?
- Reporters can ask their school districts what supports they have for parenting teens. For example, do they have lactation rooms, which are quiet, clean, with a flat surface and an electrical outlet (that isn’t the bathroom) for students who are nursing?
- Do you offer medically accurate, comprehensive, inclusive sex education?
- Does your district collect data on pregnant and parenting teenagers?
- If yes, what information do you collect?
- If no, why not? How do you keep this data private?
- Will you have policies in place to prohibit sharing information with local law enforcement for students who later don’t bring those pregnancy to term?
- If a school district offers specialized academic or online programs for this population, do they have the same rigor? Do students still have access to advanced classes and extracurricular activities, such as debating and sports?
- Does your school district offer homebound or hospitalized instruction services for pregnant and parenting students?
- Do these students have someone who can advocate for them in schools? Is there a social worker or a counselor who can connect these students to resources like local child care options, housing options and parenting classes?