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Published in Print: March 8, 2006, as Governors Turn Attention to Student Health

Governors Turn Attention to Student Health

In speech to the NGA, Bill Clinton says success could spread nationally.

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Schools should be at the center of efforts to combat obesity in the United States, former President Bill Clinton told the nation’s governors last week.

School leaders need to provide physical activities for students during and after school hours, make sure only healthy meals and snacks are served in their buildings, and offer wellness programs to their staffs, Mr. Clinton said in his Feb. 28 speech to the National Governors Association during its annual winter meeting here.

Because almost 20 percent of the nation’s population attends or works in a public or private K-12 school, he said, schools are a natural incubator for a campaign he leads with the American Heart Association to improve Americans’ health.

“We’ve got to start somewhere, and this is a good place to start,” Mr. Clinton told reporters after his speech. If the efforts in schools work, he said, that success would “then ripple through the larger society.”

Real-Life Example

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, invited the Democratic former president to address the governors at the final session of the group’s annual meeting, which focused on health. Mr. Huckabee, who wrote a book about how he himself lost more than 100 pounds, has set improvement in Americans’ health as his agenda for his one-year tenure as NGA chairman, which ends in August.

At the Feb. 25-28 meeting, governors heard from health experts about setting state policies that fight obesity and promote exercise. During the meeting, governors had a chance to videotape health-related public-service announcements with Elmo and Rosita, Muppets from the “Sesame Street” television series.

In his speech, Mr. Clinton said he was drawn to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, his initiative with the heart association, after undergoing quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 2004.

About 16 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are obese, putting them on a track to develop diabetes, heart disease, and other life-threatening illnesses as adults, Mr. Clinton said.

To combat that trend, schools should ensure that their students have the opportunity to exercise as part of the regular school day, he said, and school officials need to rid vending machines of sodas, candy, and other unhealthy snacks.

Such changes are “affordable and concrete” and would lead to results, he said.

While acknowledging those goals are laudable, one governor suggested during a question-and-answer session that educators could balk at making the changes.

“Teachers may feel that this is one more thing that we’re putting on them,” Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, told Mr. Clinton after his speech.

Teachers will embrace the initiative, Mr. Clinton responded, because they know that healthy children are more likely to be successful in the classroom.

“The argument you have to make to educators is that the children don’t learn very well if they’re sick,” Mr. Clinton said.

Another governor said schools have little control over what’s provided to them by the federal school meals program overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program doesn’t provide meals that are “the most healthy” choices, said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat.

High School News

While most of the NGA meeting focused on the health initiative, several governors updated their colleagues on efforts to promote high school improvement since the governors convened last year for a summit on that topic. ("Summit Fuels Push to Improve High Schools," March 9, 2005.)

Using private grants from foundations, 35 states have designed blueprints to increase the academic rigor in high school courses and expand learning opportunities for students, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, told his colleagues at the Feb. 28 session before Mr. Clinton spoke.

States have used the money for projects such as redesigning high schools, expanding access to Advanced Placement courses, and establishing councils to coordinate schooling from preschool through college.

Minnesota, for example, has set up a program to encourage high school students to take college-level courses. It also has identified 20 high schools to be models for math and science education.

Rhode Island is working on a science curriculum to increase the rigor and change the order of science courses to put physics before chemistry and biology, said Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican.

The state is also recruiting mathematicians and scientists to be “adjunct” high school teachers, Mr. Carcieri said to the group. President Bush has proposed a similar federal program. ("‘Adjunct Teachers’ Could Do End Run Around NCLB Act," March 1, 2006.)

The private grants for high school initiatives, which the NGA staff manages, have ensured that such efforts are continuing, even though the NGA is now focusing on Mr. Huckabee’s health initiative, Bob Wise, a former West Virginia governor, said in an interview.

“The follow-up is what’s going on in the grant programs,” said Mr. Wise, a Democrat, who is now the president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit that studies school issues. “There may not be a lot of public statements. But the intensity and the effort is there.”

PHOTO: Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee speaks with Muppets Elmo, right, and Rosita, center, of "Sesame Street," on Feb. 26 at a National Governors Association meeting in Washington.
—Charles Dharapak/AP

Vol. 25, Issue 26, Pages 18,20

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