The School Wellness Policy Requirement: How Is This Unfunded Mandate Implemented at a Local Level?

November 13, 2007

by Claire Marcy, HSC Development Director

The CDC recently released a study showing that schools across the country are making improvements in food and fitness with the school wellness policies that became mandatory in fall of 2006.  That said, many schools still need to implement the policies they’ve adopted and there is still much work to be done to make schools healthier places – from the food students eat in the lunchroom to the nutrition lessons taught in the classroom and the opportunities for physical activity and play during the school day.

What factors affect how thoroughly mandatory school wellness policies are being implemented?

Earlier this year, as part of my thesis research, I surveyed all Illinois public school superintendents to understand how they had responded to the federal mandate requiring districts to adopt local wellness policies.  Did they adopt an off-the-shelf boilerplate policy? Did they work with parents and community to develop a policy specific to their needs? Did they include a practical plan for implementing the policy? To answer these questions, I conducted an email survey of superintendents and interviews with a set of school district representatives.  The response rate for the survey was around 21 percent.

The requirement for school districts to adopt wellness policies was unfunded and unenforced; that is, the law included no penalties for non-compliance and no provisions for enforcement.

With that in mind, I hypothesized that wellness policies would likely be effectively implemented in districts where organized interest groups were advocating for a strong policy that created real change in schools.

In districts without this type of advocacy, I hypothesized that school leaders would likely go through the motions of adopting a policy but would not necessarily ensure that the policies included credible strategies and processes for implementation. We know that time and money are limited in many school systems, and that administrators have a long list of issues – from test scores to building conditions – that they may prioritize over student wellness, especially if they aren’t aware of the connections between wellness and student achievement.

In my research, I learned that the school districts represented in the survey and interviews have overwhelmingly complied with the requirement that they adopt local school wellness policies, and most have taken measures to implement those policies. 

The research indicates that the presence of active local interest groups advocating for strong policies did play a part in what type of policy was adopted and how thoroughly it has been enforced. Half of the superintendents whose districts had developed a policy and who provided additional details said that they used sample wellness policies or resources from two or more sources when developing their district’s policy. Those sources were, for the most part, interest groups advocating for strong wellness policies.

The research revealed another influential factor – a growing public awareness of childhood obesity and concern about student wellness.

While many interest groups mobilized in response the wellness policy mandate, the concern about student health and rising obesity rates seems to have permeated society at large and reached a crescendo right around the time that school districts were attempting to meet the wellness policy requirement. One quarter of the superintendents who explained why lack of funding had not affected their decision to adopt a wellness policy said that wellness policies were the right thing to do and that student health is important.

It seems that in addition to the organized efforts of interest groups, public opinion about student health compelled school leaders to develop wellness policies that in many cases went beyond the adoption of a boilerplate, one-size-fits-all policy to include specific local needs, credible strategies and processes for implementation.

It’s encouraging to see data support the role that public opinion and groups of concerned people in the community can play in school health decisions.  Does this mean that the federal government should continue to use the unfunded mandate as an effective, cost-free tool for addressing large policy issues such as school wellness and childhood obesity?

The answer to this question, I think, lies in whether mandatory wellness policies were effectively implemented in a way that made a difference for children who need them most. 

We know that Latino and African American students and low income populations are disproportionately impacted by the obesity epidemic.  The school districts represented in the survey had student populations that were predominantly Caucasian (non-Hispanic)—in 45 percent of school districts, student populations were over 95 percent Caucasian.  For all Illinois public school districts, Caucasian students represent 56 percent of the total student population.

School districts in Illinois are predominantly funded through local property taxes. As a result, the more affluent a community, the more funds it has to spend on education and initiatives like local school wellness policies.

In interviews with school districts, as well as the comments that survey respondents provided, it is clear that a lack of resources did impact what districts included in their policies as well as districts’ abilities to fully implement policies. The survey‘s disproportionate representation of school districts with large Caucasian populations underscores the fact that further research will be necessary and crucial in order to develop a better understanding of how the local school wellness policy mandate has been addressed in school districts with significant minority and low income populations.

For more detail, check out the complete survey results and interview summaries in my thesis, Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004 and the Local School Wellness Policy Requirement: How This Unfunded Mandate is Interpreted and Implemented at the Local Level.

Claire Marcy, the Healthy Schools Campaign Development Director, graduated from Northwestern University with a Master’s Degree in Public Policy and Administration in June, 2007.