A few days ago, a friend and I were having lunch in a Greek café in downtown Sacramento and the conversation turned to education reform. My friend has been a teacher, administrator, and for the last ten years, an education policy analyst with the California Legislature. She admits that she has lost more battles than she has won but she continues to be hopeful and tireless in the pursuit of reform despite all the obstacles. As we discussed various reform ideas in the context of the sheer complexity of a K-12 public school system that will spend over $45 billion this year, she said, “Kevin, I don’t think we should make this overly complicated. We should put every reform proposal to a simple and straightforward test: is it in the best interest of the child?”

Unfortunately, all too often it seems that our policymakers at the local, state, and federal level put the financial interest of adults, whether the adults are employed by the school or sell products to the school, ahead of the best interest of the children. In particular, I thought about my friend’s common sense dictum when listening to the debate over bills in the California Legislature and the U.S. Congress over whether schools should be restricted in selling junk food to children.

We are facing an obesity problem in California. More than 30% of California youth are overweight and adolescent obesity has doubled over the past two decades. Overweight and obese children are at higher risk for various health problems, including hypertension, high blood pressure, gallbladder diseases, and Type 2 diabetes. Eighty percent of these obese adolescents will remain obese as adults and suffer from various health conditions. We are all paying the price for this problem in terms of both the negative repercussions of illness and the economics of it. The direct financial costs of inactivity and obesity are estimated to account for 5.5%-7.8% of the national health care expenditures. This is reflected in higher taxes related to public insurance programs, higher premiums for private health insurance, higher out-of-pocket health care costs and untold suffering related to long-term health consequences.

Who is responsible for counteracting the obesity problem? Parents have the primary responsibility to ensure that their children eat nutritious meals and participate in sports. It is the parent’s responsibility for monitoring their children and putting reasonable limits on the number of hours spent watching television, playing video games, playing on the computer and other sedentary behaviors.

But our school board members, administrators and principals, acting in loco parentis, also have some responsibility while children are in their care. Current state law requires that every school board “give diligent care to the health and physical development of pupils.” But too many schools are carrying out their legal and ethical responsibilities. In a recent survey, 95% of responding California school districts reported that they sell fast foods to children, including soda, pizza, cookies and chips. School districts and soft drink companies are signing exclusive contracts, which give the districts a share in the profits from the sale of particular brands. Ironically, these profits are often used to subsidize the sports activities of the best athletes. Meanwhile, physical fitness activities for all other students are declining. Results from the 1999 Physical Fitness test found that 80% of California children in the 5th, 7th, and 9th grades failed the fitness standards.

As our school board members, state legislators, and congressional representatives make their decisions about junk food in schools and many other important reform issues it would be wise to think about first principles. Horace Mann, a dedicated proponent of universal education for all children, rich and poor alike, wrote in 1848 to the Massachusetts Board of Education “the common school, improved and energized as it can easily be, may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.” He further wrote, “Education, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the condition of men – the balance wheel of the social machinery.” Over 150 years later, it is clear that we have failed to achieve the goals set out by Horace Mann. The public schools were not created to train dutiful consumers of sugary substances but to create good citizens. With a little courage and a constant return to the common sense dictum of what is in “the best interest of the child,” we can once again achieve great things.

June 16, 2001

Postscript: SB 19 (Escutia) of 2001 prohibited the sale of certain beverages and food items at all elementary public schools. SB 12 (Escutia) of 2005 extended the law to apply to middle, junior high and high schools commencing on July 1, 2007.