As we gear up for another round of state and federal budget proposals, the usual rhetoric will be heard on both sides of educational reform issues: teachers’ merit pay, higher test scores, increased technology, class size, lengthening the school day/year, etc. In the final analyses, there will be negotiation and compromise to create, or should we say construct (”create” implies an ability to be visionary, resourceful and original), money parameters and program focus for another year. (Very seldom longer than that!)

One paramount issue glaring at all who care to shed their blinders is the alarming health concerns, (physical and mental, although for today we’ll dwell on the physical), trapping our youngster’s true growth and endangering a positive life expectancy. There should exist no opposing sides or contrary debate on this issue.

Consider the fact that type 2 diabetes is rampaging unchecked through our population. The number of people identified with type 2 diabetes, the kind that can be controlled by exercise and eating right, has spiraled from 5.8 million twenty years ago to 19 million today, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

An American child today has an one in three chance of contracting diabetes in their lifetime; an African American a two in five chance; a Latino, an one in two chance. Fast food, soda and snack companies thrive in financial profit but the costs to our long-term health are devastating. The profits to our pharmaceutical giants will skyrocket as they ready the pills and drugs to respond to the fallout of diabetic, obesity and cholesterol ailments.

As noted, exercise is a sure remedy and prescription for heading off ailments that can impair a productive and healthy life. Do you think we’re convincing today’s teens of that fact?

Northwestern University researchers on children’s health issues reported that 34 percent of girls and boys ages 12 to 19 showed a poor level of cardiovascular fitness on an eight-minute treadmill test. Waist size, blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and blood pressure were, not surprisingly, higher in the percentage of treadmill under-performers. While these youngsters aren’t at risk for heart disease and diabetes in the short-term, the implications for their long-term health should be alarming and signal the need for a coordinated response from parents, school and health officials.

Among the initiatives was a reduction in health insurance premiums for participation in self-health assessment programs and testing the body mass index of every school child. Huckabee is the only governor to use every cent of tobacco settlement money ($223 million) for health programs.

By contrast, Mass. in 1993 raised the excise tax on cigarettes ($1.51) to generate money for a comprehensive smoking prevention program.

Coupled with added money from tobacco company settlements, we take in today about $700 million a year in tax and settlement funds. Guess how much is allocated for the health programs? In 2004, $2.5 million (down from a peak of $58 million in the year 2000). The rest is siphoned off into other accounts in the state’s general funds.

Mass. developed a health, nutrition and fitness curriculum framework in 1993 for its schools as part of the education reform package. It still sits there in limbo while we cut physical education and health programs.

While we tout more advanced MCAS scores in math and English, can we neglect efforts and programs to get us to our advanced years without infirmity? Don’t tell us that we don’t have the money.

Hooray for Huckabee!

“The key thing is not just living longer, but living better.” — Governor Mike Huckabee, Ark.

Casey is a retired public school educator of 36 years, serving 24 of those years as an administrator in four school districts. He has served as a consultant to the Ayer and Weston School Districts and as director of the Nashoba Valley Partnership for Excellence in Education.

In 1997-1998, Casey was a member of the Mass. Secondary Schools Administrators’ Association Blue Ribbon Panel on the needs of high school principals under educational reform and participated in a consortium at the Lab at Brown University on restructuring high schools for the 21st Century.