On keeping schoolchildren healthy, GOP plan scores an ‘F’

Photo by Steve Moakley

Every weekday morning teachers in public schools across Texas call the names of more than 5 million schoolchildren as they take attendance. For the millions of children who file into these classrooms, school is more than just a place to learn. School-based programs and practices keep children here and across the country healthy, nourished, safe and enriched.

The American Health Care Act, rammed through the House this past week without any real debate or even a Congressional Budget Office score, will gut Medicaid and, as a result, threatens to devastate the important role schools play in keeping children healthy. Several critical in-school health-related programs and services are funded by Medicaid. The health care plan supported by President Trump and his allies in Congress would jeopardize these programs and put the squeeze on school districts’ already tight budgets.

You might be surprised that Medicaid funding plays such an important role in schools. But Medicaid dollars are critical for making sure many students receive the therapeutic services, health coverage, and developmental screenings that will set them up to thrive.

For example, while the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to provide special education students with a tailored program of education and additional services (such as speech and physical therapy), the federal government has never provided even half the promised funding to states to help make this a reality. So when Medicaid reimburses school districts for some of the services they provide to special education students, it not only ensures that students with disabilities get the services they need and are entitled to, it also goes a long way toward keeping school budgets in the black.

Medicaid helps defray the costs of health-related services and supplies that schools provide to students. This includes programs that monitor the needs of children with conditions like asthma and diabetes, and in-school clinics that provide much-needed medical care to Medicaid-eligible children. In a recent national survey of superintendents, almost half reported that they use Medicaid dollars to fund programs that keep students healthy and eager to learn.

Medicaid also supports programs that help schools connect uninsured students with Medicaid. Studies show that children with health coverage do better in school, earn more in their careers and live healthier lives. That’s why many school administrators do everything they can to make sure students are covered.

Medicaid funding not only supports students – it helps schools pay the salaries of staff who provide these important services. Sixty-eight percent of superintendents say that they use Medicaid funding to employ school nurses, school counselors, speech therapists and other health professionals. Cuts to Medicaid could mean fewer hours or even layoffs for these essential staff members in schools across the state, jeopardizing the support they provide to all schoolchildren.

In Texas, the stakes are greater than for any other state. Because we’ve done a good job identifying Medicaid-eligible school-based services, Texas ranks at the top of the list in the amount of Medicaid spending in our schools, more than $444 million. Over $250 million of that is federal funding – the money that is on the chopping block in the GOP’s current health care bill.

The ripple effects of Republican plans to slash Medicaid funding would harm special education students, low-income families and the hardworking staff in our public schools. And that’s not to mention the estimated 24 million Americans who would lose coverage under the plan – including as many as 5.6 million Texans who would be at risk of losing their coverage or facing increased costs.

On Thursday, 24 members of Congress from Texas supported a bill that will directly impact the most vulnerable students in classrooms across their districts. They should be ashamed. As this terrible bill moves to the Senate, let’s hope Senators Cruz and Cornyn do not show the same callous disregard for Texas children and their families. Students, parents and staff in school districts across the state can’t afford for this bill to become law. If we want our schools to continue doing everything they can to make sure every student succeeds, we must demand that our representatives abandon this irresponsible proposal.

Patrick Bresette

Executive director, Children’s Defense Fund-Texas.