Elders's Departure May Signal Shift On Health Issues, Advocates Predict

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When President Clinton fired Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, he set off alarms in the school-health community, where advocates fear that the Administration is abandoning the policies she championed.

Coming in the wake of the Nov. 8 Republican victories, the dismissal of Dr. Elders last month was widely viewed as part of the larger conservative shift in Washington.

"It doesn't take a genius to say this--on school-health and sex-education issues, we are going to move to the right," said one Democratic Senate aide.

"It's not a good omen for sexuality education when we lose our best advocate," said Debra W. Haffner, the executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S., based in Washington, D.C.

President Clinton asked his outspoken surgeon general to resign after he learned she had said in a speech that masturbation "is something that perhaps should be taught in schools."

"There have been a number of things where we just have different positions," the President said at a news conference following Dr. Elders's dismissal. As of late last week, he had yet to appoint a successor.

Dr. Elders, who has resumed her teaching position at the University of Arkansas medical school, defended her statements but also said she understood Mr. Clinton's decision.

"The President is doing what he needs to do," she said.

'Draconian' Provisions

Both Dr. Elders's departure and the newly configured Congress signal a dramatic shift to the right on school-health issues at the federal level, Congressional sources say.

While those issues are not high on the Republicans' agenda for the 104th Congress that opened last week, G.O.P. conservatives are expected to reintroduce several proposals that failed to pass in the Democratic-controlled 103rd Congress.

"Those draconian provisions are going to come back at us with a vengeance," William Bruno, a lobbyist for the National School Boards Association, predicted. "Now we have to be on guard again."

For example, an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to bar federal education funding for schools whose curricula promote homosexuality may now have the votes to pass.

In addition, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the new Speaker of the House, has decried the problem of teenage pregnancy and is expected to address the issue as part of the House Republicans' welfare-reform plan.

Some Republican leaders have also discussed amending Title X, which authorizes a frequently controversial sex-education program, to provide funding for school programs that stress abstinence.

The Health and Human Services Department's adolescent-family-life office--which has changed its mission several times in the past decade--currently pays for sex-education courses with a broader focus.

Some educators are concerned that legislators amending Title X will again try to dictate what curricula can be used in government-financed sex-education courses.

"Everything we managed to beat back is going to be reopened," said Ms. Haffner of siecus. "They might try to limit what can be taught in the classroom."

Conservatives Hopeful

But while many in the school-health community are lamenting the change in the political landscape, conservative family-policy groups are encouraged by the new course they expect the G.O.P.-controlled Congress to take.

"This is a good time for pro-family advocates," said Kristi Hamrick, the spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a policy group based in Washington.

She applauded the Republicans' eagerness to tackle the problem of teenage pregnancy.

"If these issues of illegitimacy are not addressed, our society will be destroyed," Ms. Hamrick said. "We feel very hopeful that the men and women that ran on a pro-family agenda will be ready to make some real choices."

But many of the changes Republican lawmakers make may prove to be more subtle shifts in budgetary priorities.

New Approaches

For example, the approach of Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kan., can be summed up in two words: block grants.

Ms. Kassebaum, the new chairwoman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committe, supports some categorical programs, including funding for school clinics and the safe- and drug-free-schools programs, but she favors consolidating most federal school-health money into one grant program and allowing the states to determine how best to administer the aid.

"Senator Kassebaum's philosophy is that the federal government should not be involved in determining specifics," said Michael Horak, the senator's spokesman.

Federal support for aids education in schools is also likely to meet a dead end under the Republican majority.

"Some individual members will be interested in aids education, but mostly they will run like hell," predicted Braden Goetz, an aide to Rep. Major R. Owens, D-N.Y., the former chairman of the now-defunct House Select Education Subcommittee.

Congressional Democrats are not even discussing increases in school-health spending, and are hoping to merely preserve the status quo, Mr. Goetz said.

"Republicans are going after so many programs that we are going to be spending all our time protecting what's already on the books," he said.

Vol. 14, Issue 16

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