Maine’s role as national leader in student health at risk

Posted July 03, 2012, at 10:56 p.m.

Having a personal connection to Maine, I have always appreciated the state for its virtues, including its independent political streak. As campaign staff for Rep. Tom Allen and one of his first legislative assistants, I learned to appreciate that Mainers value principle over politics. Allen always had support back home for his efforts to bridge the partisan gap in Washington.

In the end, common sense prevails in Maine, and the public good outweighs that of a select few. For that reason, the state is a policy leader in areas such as education and public health.

That’s also why it is so unfortunate that Maine’s role as a national leader in community-focused health is at risk. This year’s budget bill cut $9.2 million from the Fund for a Healthy Maine. Within that, nearly $3 million was cut from a Fund for a Healthy Maine program called Coordinated School Health. That’s about half the program’s budget. To implement these cuts, the Department of Health and Human Services chose to eliminate all of Maine’s school health coordinator positions. That’s almost 30 jobs in a down economy and difficult job market.

This funding — and the school health coordinators as well — supported one of the country’s best models, putting Maine on the map as a national leader in advocating for student health. However, that success likely will become history if funding is not restored.

Maine’s Coordinated School Health program empowers local communities with the resources and know-how to make their kids healthier. Coordinated School Health places coordinators in districts to assess the needs of their specific schools, develop a program to address those needs and manage the program to ensure success. Because the model increases attendance and addresses nonacademic barriers to school success, it is an important factor in the improvement of educational outcomes.

Maine’s Coordinated School Health program has achieved impressive results. On average, every student in the state now receives an additional 20 minutes of physical activity, and 380 new healthy food choices were added to lunch menus and provided at school events. Over a five-year period, school health coordinators raised more than $5 million of additional funding for health programs that benefit students and staff.

The personalized, focused and dedicated work of school health coordinators cannot be replaced or replicated by periodic visits of state-level, external contractors or government officials. Coordinated School Health works because it provides school health coordinators as part of an infrastructure that ensures equity across all school districts — no matter where they stand in the socioeconomic strata — and guarantees that all students have a shot to be successful, both in the classroom and in life.

Eliminating programs that are central to promoting a better quality of life for all children is foolish. The cuts to Coordinated School Health will mean the elimination of these coordinators, with Maine losing a powerful tool to combat childhood obesity and other health issues. I commend Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, and other state legislators who oppose these budget cuts and support the restoration of funding to this worthwhile and effective model.

Andrew Hysell is the project director for the Campaign for Healthy Kids. He also serves as the associate vice president for policy and advocacy for Save the Children’s U.S. Programs.

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