A National Dialogue on Education and Health

  • June 17, 2019
057 BPC Healthy Schools

On May 28, Healthy Schools Campaign partnered with the Bipartisan Policy Center to host a dialogue with national leaders highlighting the inextricable linkage between education and health. This exciting event was attended in person or online by over 200 people, and was streamed live on CSPAN-2. HSC’s President + CEO Rochelle Davis offered the opening remarks, highlighting what we’ve learned from almost two decades of work in this field, the challenges and opportunities we see — and why this work is more important than ever. Her full remarks are below.

Rochelle’s remarks were followed by a dynamic discussion moderated by BPC’s Chief Medical Advisor Anand Parekh with three guests:

  • Sen. Bill Frist, M.D., Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader; BPC Senior Fellow
  • John B. King, Former Education Secretary; President and CEO, The Education Trust
  • Sec. Pedro A. Rivera, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education; Chair, Council of Chief State School Officers.

A recap of the conversation can be found on the Diverse: Issues in Higher Education website, and we encourage you to watch the full video!

A key theme of the event was the importance of breaking down the walls that keep education and health from working together at every level — from state budgeting processes that make it difficult to share the burden of innovative school health programs to data sharing limitations that make it difficult to implement partnerships. Panelists also discussed the way that perceptions can serve as barriers: as panelist Pedro Rivera put it, a huge barrier to interagency cooperation can often be a vague, “they told us we can’t do it that way,” rather than an actual statutory barrier.

HSC is working hard with states and school districts across the country and here in Chicago to find new ways to break down these barriers and help health and education work together. Find out more about what we see as the challenges and opportunities by watching the event video and reading Rochelle’s opening remarks from the event, below.

Opening Remarks by Rochelle Davis

At Healthy Schools Campaign our work is based on the simple, common-sense notion that healthy students are better learners. Since 2002, we have worked — in Chicago and across the country — to advocate for policies and practices that ensure that all children, no matter their race, ethnicity or family income, can attend healthy, safe and supportive schools.

Healthy schools can positively impact students’ all-around well-being, build a solid foundation for learning, and help address the health and educational disparities impacting the most vulnerable children.

This work is more important than ever. Over the past few decades, the prevalence of chronic conditions that impact students’ ability to be in school and ready to learn — such as asthma, diabetes and obesity — has doubled from one in eight children to one in four. And more and more children suffer from a range of mental health issues like anxiety, depression, substance abuse and ADHD. One in five children has a diagnosable mental health problem and nearly two-thirds of them get little or no help.

These conditions disproportionately impact low-income African American, Latino and immigrant children from disinvested and marginalized communities. These children disproportionately suffer from a lack of access to health care and attend schools with less access to physical activity, higher exposure to environmental toxins in the air and water, and fewer school-based health services. Compounding these challenges, many of these same children also live in areas that are less likely to have space for safe outdoor play, and many students come to school suffering the impact of food insecurity and trauma.

The impact of poor childhood health and disparities in access to healthcare and supportive school environments reverberates throughout a child’s life. A student who is malnourished or living with an unmanaged physical or mental health condition will have more problems concentrating in class and miss more school days than a healthy student. Children who are chronically absent in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade are much less likely to read at grade level by the third grade. Students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.

Research increasingly supports a link between educational success and long term health outcomes: in other words, investing in education is essential to supporting a healthy population. And, a healthy and well educated population is essential to a vibrant and strong America.

So let’s imagine for a moment what it might look like for every student in our country to attend a school that supports students’ well-being and health as a foundation for learning. In a healthy school, teachers are given the resources and training to support students’ overall wellbeing and build a safe and supportive school climate; parents are welcomed into the school community, and their knowledge and leadership are valued; the school gives students access to healthy food, physical activity and clean air and water; the school actively teaches students to make healthy choices that allow them to thrive; and physical, mental and behavioral healthcare is available. In a healthy school, students learn—through lessons and through examples—to value their own health.

Healthy Schools Campaign has worked in Chicago and nationally to make this vision a reality.

In Chicago, we have engaged parent leaders, teachers and principals and helped them advocate at the district level for healthier school food, and the return of physical education and recess to the school day. And we have helped schools transform paved over schoolyards into vibrant green spaces for play and learning.

We see many amazing initiatives and programs in Chicago and across the country. We applaud the school staff, families and partners who have made these changes happen. The challenge is making these changes scalable and sustainable.

To do that we need systems change including ensuring that schools, especially those serving students with the greatest needs, have adequate funding including the resources necessary to support healthy learning environments. We need to provide schools with the knowledge and tools to understand the health needs of their students, implement appropriate policies and programs, and build the partnerships they need. And we need to incorporate health and wellness into education metrics and accountability systems so that it is prioritized and funded.

Fortunately, we are at a moment that offers several opportunities to overcome some of these system level barriers.

The the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA has given states new opportunities to address student health and school wellness. For example, under ESSA, all state school report cards must now include chronic absence rates, which can be a powerful proxy measure of student health and school wellness. And 36 states include chronic absence rates as part of their state educational accountability system.

States and school districts are leveraging these new opportunities. For instance, a school district in Tennessee is using funding from ESSA to support their school nurses efforts to track why students are absent. This allows the district to get a more complete picture of the problem and identify ways to address it.

And the education sector increasingly has a powerful partner in the health sector, which recognizes that health is driven by more than what happens in the doctor’s office.

Recently, Trinity Health, which operates in 22 states, announced that it will require all of its hospitals to include chronic absence in their community health needs assessments. Also this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement highlighting the role that pediatricians can play in addressing chronic absence. With the education and health sectors both integrating chronic absenteeism into their metrics and data systems, we have created a new opportunity for alignment and partnerships.

Another opportunity to address a long standing barrier that schools have faced is a recent change in Medicaid. States now have the opportunity to allow school districts to be reimbursed for a much wider range of services provided to Medicaid-enrolled students. We are partnering with Trust for America’s Health to lead a 15 state learning collaborative so that schools will be able to access Medicaid dollars to pay for school nurses, counselors, social workers and crucial health services. States are beginning to take advantage of this opportunity.

It is important to recognize that these are opportunities — not mandates. — for states and communities to address student health and school wellness. There is much work still to be done at the federal and state level to support schools and communities to create the conditions that will allow all children to thrive . That is why the leadership of our panelists on these issues, and the efforts of all of you who have joined us today, are so important. This event provides an important chance for us to explore how to be successful in building healthy and supportive school environments so all children can learn and thrive.