published Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Funding for school health program should be based on results

Even in the best economic times, when businesses are hiring workers and government revenue is growing from an expanded tax base, there still will never be enough tax dollars to fund every good idea.

That is doubly true in a difficult economic period, such as the one that Tennessee and most of the rest of the nation are enduring. So lawmakers should be careful to spend money only on programs that yield clear benefits in an efficient manner.

Tennessee lawmakers are eyeing, for example, a program called Coordinated School Health. It was in all Tennessee school districts by 2007, and it aims "to improve student health outcomes as well as support the connection between good health practices, academic achievement and lifetime wellness."

The program focuses on issues such as childhood obesity. Among its other activities, it promotes not only team sports but lifetime exercise options such as jogging. It has also paid for workout equipment for teachers at some schools. In Hamilton County, Coordinated School Health has one full-time and two part-time employees, and it contracts with a dietitian.

But with revenue limited, it is not certain that the program will be funded in the budget for the coming year.

Certainly no one would say we shouldn't want students to be healthy, nor that their health has no effect on their academic performance. But the question should not be whether the Coordinated School Health program has proper aims. It obviously does. The question should be whether it is actually achieving those aims -- in measurable, specific ways and to a degree that justifies more funding. For example, has obesity fallen among schoolchildren around the state as a clear result of the program's anti-obesity efforts?

If the program is showing concrete and sustained benefits for students in Hamilton County and statewide, it may make sense for Tennessee lawmakers to continue it. But that decision should be based not on the worthwhile goals of the program but on sure evidence of its benefits -- and on what the state's taxpayers can afford.

Whether the state can keep funding Coordinated School Health is an open question. Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said in the Times Free Press that the program has some value. But, he said, it may be "wishful thinking" to believe the state can afford a number of the programs that may be on the chopping block.

In his day, he joked, "Coordinated School Health was called 'gym class.'"

Whatever one may call it, it is sensible for lawmakers to review its funding, just as they should make tough choices about other funding in the state's budget.

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