Early childhood education is now at the forefront of the nation’s social policy agenda. The groundswell of support presents a real opportunity to ensure that low-income children get the most out of education throughout their school years, in part by making sure that undiagnosed health issues aren’t interfering with school performance.
If we make sure that every child entering pre-kindergarten has been properly screened for significant health conditions, we can treat and manage some of the conditions – like asthma and vision problems – that, unrecognized or under-treated, can jeopardize a child’s likelihood of succeeding in school.
There may be a broad assumption that every child gets a complete medical assessment as a requirement for school entry – but this is far from reality. The fact is that millions of children are educationally at-risk because of a host of medical challenges that are easily treated.
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If standardized health screening and follow-up are mandated in any new universal pre-k legislation, educators and health providers – in partnership – can dramatically improve the education and health trajectories of students.
President Obama has placed expansion of pre-K programs at the center of his social policy agenda in successive State of the Union addresses – and his focus on this issue is already making a difference. The budget deal reached by Congress in December ensures that Early Head Start and Head Start will receive a $1 billion increase on top of a restoration of sequestration cuts. Funding was also added for competitive grants to states to help them expand pre-K programs. Thirty states have now chosen to expand access to universal pre-k through state run programs.
In November 2013, Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children bill. A marginally bipartisan companion bill has also been introduced on the House side. With billions in new funding to states, Strong Start proposes the expansion of comprehensive, high-quality pre-K programs that include health screenings and referrals for vision, oral and mental health conditions. These provisions stand solidly on the preponderance of research which demonstrates a correlation between persistent health-related barriers to education and poor performance in the classroom.
Still, the provisions to identify important health conditions among young children entering school don’t go far enough. We also need to make sure that children are not educationally impaired by other conditions like chronic anemia, hearing deficiencies, behavioral problems and so on. And beyond identifying these health barriers, it is essential to provide guidance and resources to do follow-up and management of identified medical challenges.
Federal, state and local governments have an opportunity to pass early education laws that mandate a focus on health care, as well as access to education. Maybe Congress will put aside partisan and political grandstanding and pass a popular bill that funds universal, comprehensive pre-K for all children as well as screening for and management of health-related barriers to learning—it would be a major step forward in definitively addressing chronic poverty.