Working to Improve Student Health and Education

July 31, 2015

50 years ago, the first version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson who stated that “full educational opportunity” should be “our first national goal.”

Fast forward to 2015, and many different versions of the act have come and gone — each with its own approach to making education a more level playing field for students everywhere. The most recent reauthorization of this act was in 2002 — a new one is long overdue.

This month, both the House and the Senate passed their versions of a new ESEA, but the road to a new bill doesn’t end there. In August, Congress and the Senate will come back from their summer recess and work to combine their two versions into one comprehensive bill.

A big change with the Senate version of ESEA — and one that Healthy Schools Campaign is especially encouraged by — is the inclusion of several health-related elements. Chronic absenteeism is now included in state plans; schools are required to do needs assessments to access health and wellness funding; and using school climate (including chronic absenteeism) in assessing needs for professional development programs.

Chronic absenteeism is emerging in our work as a really important framework for supporting student success and in particular student health. We think chronic absenteeism is an issue that people can work together on instead of being divisive. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest when students are in classrooms learning. This is truly just the start of the dialogue around chronic absenteeism. As this metric becomes more common, we believe that school leaders will realize the power of this metric how it can be used to support students and schools.

We are thankful for the work and support of Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who authored a provision to the bill that strengthened and clarified how chronic absenteeism was to be reported and that added absenteeism as an acceptable use of professional development funds for teachers and principals. This gives schools the ability to address chronic absenteeism and intervene as early as kindergarten.

Like we’ve said before, the Senate version is a series of compromises that were designed to get through a very partisan Senate, and possibly get through an even more partisan House. It’s imperfect and it’s controversial. But it’s also a bill that tries to do some things related to student health that we haven’t seen before.

We’re optimistic that the Senate and House can combine their two version to create a bill that will retain many of the important health-related elements, including measures to combat and reduce chronic absenteeism.