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Research Points to Health Care Improving School Outcomes

Just now the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature health-care initiative—including a controversial provision that would require individuals to buy health-care insurance. But what does this provision mean for schools? It could be more connected than you'd think, as research shows health-care disparities help drive achievement gaps among students.

Last year, public health experts argued in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease that health and education are "integrally linked" and educators and health officials should form stronger partnerships to improve high school graduation rates.

"The reasons students drop out of school are complex, and health can be integrally related to many of these reasons, including barriers to learning such as hunger and poor nutrition and even fear for safety at school," wrote authors led by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researcher Diane Allensworth. "Health problems contribute to absenteeism and, in turn, absenteeism as well as unintended pregnancy and delinquency are associated with dropping out of school."

A previous study by Teachers College at Columbia University found medical problems like vision disabilities and asthma disproportionately affect poor and minority children, who are also less likely to have health insurance. More recent studies have found students with chronic illnesses are at greater risk of absenteeism and poor school performance.

An evaluation in October of the State Children's Health Insurance Program backed up that argument, finding that school absenteeism rates dropped as children's health insurance rates rose under the program.

In a study published in November in the Journal of School Health, nearly one in five district superintendents said they assess the health-insurance status of their students, and more than half try to help the parents of students without insurance get benefits. Fully 80 percent believed that helping students become covered by health-care insurance can "keep students healthier, reduce the number of students with untreated health problems, reduce school absenteeism, and improve ... students' attention/concentration during school."

As the health-care law goes more fully into effect, it will be interesting to study whether it increases the number of children covered by health insurance, and whether those children get an academic boost from being healthier.

For more of Education Week's coverage of health care and schools, check out Mark Walsh's coverage of education spending issues raised during the High Court's oral arguments; Bryan Toporek's look at inequalities in child obesity screening; and Nirvi Shah's feature on school health clinics.

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