Proposed Education Bill Could Be a Big Win for Student Health

April 14, 2015

We see this effort as an important opportunity to support the connection between health and learning.

Last week, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) released a bipartisan draft of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to debate the bill today. In its current state, the proposed bill includes a number of wins for student health.

We spent a few days going through the more than 600-page draft and have identified language in several sections that is supportive of student health and wellness. This language, which is not included in the current version of ESEA (known as No Child Left Behind), aligns with a number of the key school health priorities that we — along with many of our partners and allies — have been advocating for.

The Alexander/Murray draft bill would help advance student health by:

  • Adding chronic absenteeism as a required indicator to school report cards for Title 1 schools (schools with high numbers or high percentages of low-income students). Chronic absenteeism can serve as a powerful measure for students who are academically at risk. In addition, student health issues are a leading cause of chronic absenteeism. We are advocating for the use of chronic absenteeism as a driver of early intervention for at risk students, and inclusion of chronic absenteeism on school report cards would be a key step toward accomplishing this.
  • Clarifying that Title 1 funds (the federal program that provides school funding to support the academic achievement of low income students) can be used to address the physical, mental and emotional well-being of children. Given the significant health disparities that exist in our country and their connection to the academic achievement gap, allowing the use of Title 1 funds to support student health is a key strategy for supporting student achievement.
  • Restructuring Title IV, Safe and Healthy Students, to require that eligible school districts conduct a comprehensive needs assessment to identify the health and safety needs of their students. In addition, the draft bill allows states to use Title IV funds to build the capacity of school districts and schools to address student health and wellness needs.
  • Recognizing physical education as a core subject, which would elevate the importance of PE and encourage schools to recognize PE as an important part of a well-rounded education.

Education advocates are seeing today’s hearing as a real, bipartisan effort to update what most consider to be a highly problematic education law. We see this effort as an important opportunity to support the connection between health and learning and are encouraged by the inclusion of a number of important health provisions. For people who care about student health, this is the most significant opportunity we have seen within education reform for creating the conditions of health in schools.

Today’s hearing is the start of a long process, but we’re encouraged that it’s beginning with a framework that supports children’s health. We applaud Senators Alexander and Murray for recognizing the important role student health plays in supporting academic achievement.

Update: On April 17, the U.S. Senate’s HELP committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the Senate floor. In the course of three days of debating, the key elements pertaining to student health were not only left intact, but an amendment was adopted to make sure that physical education grants to schools were not lost. The next step is for the bill to be debated in the full Senate, expected sometime in June.

The bipartisan nature of the debate is encouraging, but it doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing from this point on out. Several lawmakers chose to postpone more controversial amendments that may be considered later on the Senate floor.

HSC will continue to support efforts to include health as an important component of ESEA.