Health Care Reform is Good For Schools

Over the last couple of months we have heard compelling and sometimes unruly arguments over proposed health care reform in this country. While both the pros and cons of health care reform have been expressed by many, we have yet to hear how health care reform could be an integral and invaluable component to education reform.

A quick lesson on education reform in this country is typically nothing more than history repeating itself. Following the U.S Department of Education’s publication of Nation at Risk, this 1983 benchmark report on educational reform resulted in many changes. Rigorous learning standards, effective use of school time, improved teacher education programs, early intervention programs and school leadership accountability were among the many recommendations which have found their way in to today’s schools.

Almost 20 years after Nation at Risk, President George W. Bush signed into law the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. One of the requirements of the legislation was for states to develop assessments in basic skills. Schools would also be held accountable for the academic progress of all children, regardless of race, ethnicity or income level. Stronger accountability would include closing the achievement gap between white and minority students. Today, closing the achievement gap is a national priority.

While all of these are important in bringing change to arguably a stagnant educational system, their impact on significantly improving academic outcomes for all students has disappointed. This is particularly true for minority students and those living in poverty. The academic achievement gap between minority students and their white peers continues to be unacceptable.

Analysis of national 2006 high school graduation rates, conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research, indicates that graduation rates vary among different student groups. While 75% of white and Asian students earn a high school diploma, graduation rates for other groups are terribly low and disturbing. Latinos, African-Americans and Native Americans graduate at a rate of just over 50%. While the gap has been narrowed over recent time, it still leaves many poor and minority students lagging behind. This is where the repetitive cycle of education reform begins and ends. More of the same does not address the important societal issues which can equally affect academic learning.

The problems with today’s schools cannot be unilaterally resolved by working solely within the four walls of the school community. School change must be complemented by societal changes as well. Bringing health care to those presently uninsured will be a major first step in bringing meaningful change to the educational establishment as well.

Students whose families lack health care and related medical interventions are at a severe disadvantage in school. Often, students from these families come to school sick lacking the focus and attention needed to learn. When they do stay home because of illness, they might remain home and out of school longer than their health insured peers who have access to needed medical care. For students to benefit from the range of educational reform strategies already proposed, they must be in school. Providing health insurance to those currently uninsured families will allow their children a greater opportunity to learn by regularly attending school.

Students with health insurance often have other advantages over their non-insured peers. Annual physical check-ups, recommended nutritional plans, along with other prophylactic strategies send these students to school ready to learn. Students without ongoing access to health care often find themselves prone to illness, while potential and chronic childhood illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes and even obesity, can go undiagnosed further compounding their ability to learn.

High poverty rates have been shown to exist more among people of color than from the dominant culture. Expectant mothers living in poverty often lack the needed medical insurance to access important pre-natal care during their pregnancies. This places their unborn at risk for later developmental delays and other learning disabilities. The Twenty-fourth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) reported in 2002 that while African-American students represented almost 15% of the student population, they disproportionately represented 19.8% of all students identified as students with disabilities.

Lastly, it is generally recognized that parents, in collaboration with school personnel, play a critical role in contributing to their children’s academic success. Regular communication with teachers, monitoring of homework assignments and attending parent-teacher meetings are but some of the many activities engaged in by supportive parents. For some parents this may not be possible. For those parents working in jobs that do not provide health insurance and medical benefits it leaves them working multiple jobs to purchase minimal health care insurance. This leaves them little, if any, time to help their children with school related responsibilities.

Schools cannot do it alone. Helping all students reach their potential requires multiple resources from many different sources. Making health care available and affordable to those not insured, or under insured, will be a needed step in bringing help to educational reform from outside the four walls of the school building.