"Schools for Pregnant Girls, Relic of 1960s New York, Will Close." So announced a front-page headline in The New York Times. Well, if it's a relic, obviously it must be bad, right?
Right, says the Times. "Created in the 1960s, when pregnant girls were such pariahs that they were forced to leave school until their babies were born, the city school system's four pregnancy schools . . . have lived on . . ." Until now. They will close at the end of the school year "in recognition of their failure."
The Times paints a grim picture of these schools, virtual warehouses where pregnant teens are given busy work like sewing quilts instead of studying the Pythagorean theorem or biology. "It's a separate but unequal program," says Cami Anderson, superintendent in charge of the pregnancy schools, which cost taxpayers $33,670 per pupil per year.
There it is, in paragraph seven, the inevitable civil rights reference -- the most overused and misused comparison in American life. "Separate but equal" was delegitimized because it made invidious distinctions based upon nothing more than skin tone. But not every distinction is unlawful or even unfair.
Schools used to separate pregnant girls from their classmates because it was deemed unseemly to have a pregnant high school student in the regular classroom. These days, we've largely removed the stigma. Which system was better?
The Times approached the issue purely as a matter of education. These girls were not being encouraged to make the most of their educational opportunities. The Times cited Cassandra Gonzalez, 15, pregnant with a boy due in July, who wants to attend college and become a lawyer but is distracted by the "constant talk of babies at school."
Well, it isn't as if she doesn't have reason to be distracted. In a few months, she will give birth to the most permanent distraction there is. And that is a calamity for her own educational prospects, for her child's well-being and for society. Everyone knows the statistics on teenage childbearing. More than 55 percent of children living in a home with a never-married mother will be poor, compared with only nine percent of children with married parents.
Looking at long-term poverty rather than a snapshot for any given year, only 2.5 percent of two-parent families remain poor for six years or longer, whereas 19.4 percent of single-parent families do. Single mothers are more likely to receive welfare, less likely to ever finish school and less likely to achieve other life goals than women who wait until marriage to begin having children.
As for the children of never-married mothers, they are far more likely than the general population to have psychiatric disorders, get into trouble with the law, drop out of high school and have out-of-wedlock children themselves than the population at large. Moreover, someone needs to tell girls like Cassandra, preferably long before they are big with child, that her expectations of college and law school are not very realistic if she is saddled with a baby. Bill Cosby is doing the Lord's work by telling teenage girls: "If you want a baby because your friend has one and she is soooo cute -- get a puppy."
The schools alone cannot determine whether girls will get pregnant in high school. God knows the messages they get from popular culture are enough to make a Benedictine monk waver. And many of the girls' mothers have hardly set a good example. But the schools send strong social signals. The old stigma, as difficult as it may have been for the individuals marked, was a socially efficient (not to mention inexpensive) means of preventing an outcome that virtually all agree is deeply undesirable.
According to Exercise My Rights, an advocacy website (titleix.info), "Title IX protects pregnant teenagers, their children, and their futures. Under Title IX, schools are not allowed to treat pregnant or parenting students differently from other students. The law recognizes how important it is for all young people to have access to education, not just for their future economic independence and self-sufficiency, but also for the health and development of their children."
Closing pregnancy schools won't accomplish that. It simply continues what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called "defining deviancy down." Far better to discourage the pregnancy in the first place than to pretend that pregnant teenagers are just like everyone else.