Thursday, August 23, 2007 7:55 PM
While governor of Texas and initiator of the so-called "Texas education miracle" aimed at helping poor and minority children succeed academically, George W. Bush had an opportunity to use a large budget surplus to provide affordable health care for 250,000 poor children. Instead, he called a special legislative session. Declaring "people are hurting out there," Bush pushed through a $45 million tax break for oil well owners.
Fast-forward to 2007 and we find the No Child Left Behind president responding similarly to poor children's needs by threatening to veto a bipartisan bill, the State Children's Health Insurance Plan (SCHIP), that would extend health insurance to millions of uninsured children. Bush worries that the program would be too expensive and (worry of worries!) that it would "encourage more people to go on government health care." Instead, he proposes a federal plan that would remove about one million children currently receiving health insurance and increase the number of uninsured children from nine to ten million. While proclaiming to be making education policy that keeps "a historic commitment to our children," the president apparently sees no connection between children's academic achievement and their health.
Of course the connection is no news for teachers, who see its critical importance everyday in their classrooms, or to researchers who have studied it. For example, Stephanie M. Spernak and colleagues examined health and academic achievement in former Head Start children. They found that children's health status when beginning school predicted third grade achievement scores and "children in poor general health had significantly lower achievement scores than children in good general health in third grade." Similarly, Brenda Needham and colleagues found that self-reported physical health problems were associated with school failure, mostly because health problems contribute to school absenteeism, trouble with homework, and student-teacher bonding. Asthmatic children in the United States miss approximately 14 million days of school, but the rate of school absenteeism is twice as high among poor and minority asthmatic children living in urban areas.
And health insurance makes a difference! A California study showed that after obtaining health care, children who had been in poor health improved their school attendance, attention in class, and the extent to which they kept up with school activities. Of course these changes contributed to improved academic performance. A University of Missouri study found that children who enrolled in the state's health insurance program had 39% fewer school absences. Uninsured children with asthma miss more school days.
Bush's threat to veto the SCHIP legislation illustrates what is often omitted in discussions of NCLB and its chief instructional mandate, Reading First. Besides being an attempt to wreck the public schools, replace a full education with mindless skills training, and increase control over teachers' work and power, NCLB serves as cruel ideological instrument by which to focus the nation on a pretense of helping poor and minority children while making war on them by slashing every federal policy initiative critical to their lives and educational success.
Again, a look back at Texas reveals the template for this policy. While focusing on the so-called "Texas education miracle," which has been soundly debunked by several independent studies, Bush was indifferent to poor children. For example, while he was governor, Texas ranked second highest among states in the percentage of people - especially children - who went hungry. Yet he vetoed a minimal step to help the malnourished, i.e., a bill to coordinate hunger programs in Texas. As governor he slashed the state's food stamp payments, support essential for poor children, by $1 billion. When a reporter asked him about hunger in the state, the governor answered, "Where?" As president, he has cut or attempted to cut federal support for countless programs, such as affordable housing, food stamps, lead decontamination, urban pollution reduction, and Head Start that would better poor children's lives and contribute to their academic success.
Right now educators can make a difference in taking one important step to help poor children's health and education. Go to the Campaign for Health Care at http://www.childrenshealthcampaign.org/. There you'll be able to sign a petition to Congress and the President that calls for health coverage for all children. You'll also find information on how to call your senators and urge them to support SCHIP and how to recruit family and friends in this effort. Both the House and Senate bills would provide additional funds to provide health insurance for millions of poor children. These bills are inadequate in that they would not cover all uninsured children, but are the best the Democrats can do right now in order to get sufficient Republican support to override a presidential veto.
Given the grim realities of current domestic policy, both bills and the final compromise bill will be a critical victory for many poor children. By voicing support for these bills, educators can help defeat one aspect of the war on poor children's education.