A Pregnancy Test for Schools

By Fatima Goss Graves and Lara S. Kaufmann, National Women's Law Center

From "Juno" to "16 & Pregnant," the American public has been fascinated by the specter of teenage pregnancy. Unfortunately, the issue of young mothers and their education has received little attention. Even 40 years after the passage of Title IX, the landmark federal law that bans sex discrimination (including pregnancy discrimination) in schools, pregnant and parenting students continue to be barred from activities, kicked out of school, pressured to attend alternative programs, and penalized for pregnancy-related absences. An ACLU demand letter recently highlighted an extreme practice by a charter school in Louisiana of requiring female students “suspected of being pregnant” to submit to pregnancy tests and then refusing to allow those with positive results to continue going to class. The complaints we hear from students in other schools often involve the more subtle practice of discouraging pregnant students by erecting hurdles to their graduation, in violation of their civil rights.

Earlier this year, the National Women’s Law Center released a report entitled A Pregnancy Test for Schools: The Impact of Education Laws on Pregnant and Parenting Students. The report highlights the barriers that pregnant and parenting students face, including discrimination, and provides an overview of the relevant federal laws and policies. The report also ranks all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico on the extent to which their laws and policies help pregnant and parenting students succeed. Some states have made great strides forward in supporting the education of pregnant and parenting students, but the majority of states have few or no laws, policies, or programs specifically designed to improve outcomes for these students.

Unfortunately, too many pregnant and parenting students have resigned themselves to the mistreatment they experience and reluctantly leave school. In a Gates Foundation study almost one-half of female dropouts surveyed identified becoming a parent as a factor in their decisions to leave school (the same was true for 24% of the male dropouts surveyed). And according to a 2010 study by Child Trends, only about 50% of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by the age of 22 (this statistic drops to 38% for those who have babies before age 18). Nearly one-third of teenage mothers never go on to earn a G.E.D. or a diploma.

But parenthood does not have to be the end of the road for teen moms. Quite to the contrary, motherhood often serves as an educational motivator for many young women. Studies have shown that regardless of their relationship to school before their pregnancy, almost all teen mothers describe new education priorities as they anticipate motherhood. If we as a nation want to address the dropout crisis, it seems obvious that we might examine one of the leading causes of female dropout crisis. Ending discrimination against pregnant and parenting students is a critical first step toward keeping these young women in school and securing a better future for them and their children; supportive policies and practices must follow. Support ranging from child care and transportation to homebound instruction for extended absences paired with continued rigorous and relevant curricula can help pregnant and parenting students stay in school and graduate. We hope you’ll check out the report’s toolkit to get started on these changes in your community!

Download the full National Women's Law Center report here!

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