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Senate Bill 1456: Keeping what’s important in sight

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When it comes to our children and their education, it’s important to keep these things top of mind:

Kids who struggle to see struggle to learn.

Kids who struggle to see struggle to fully participate in their own education.

Kids who struggle to see often don’t know they’re struggling.

Kids who struggle to see are often stigmatized due to poor grades and behavioral challenges.

For these reasons, Senate Bill 1456 would require establishment of a vision screening policy in Arizona with a clear set of age-appropriate screening practices. Arizona enacted something similar in 1971 for hearing screening in schools. For all of the reasons stated above, it just makes sense.

The bill is so sensible as a policy change that it actually reflects what most schools in Arizona are already doing. A representative statewide sampling of 400 elementary schools by Vitalyst Health Foundation found that 87 percent currently provide vision screening. The point of the bill is to make this process uniform across all schools, providing equitable access to all students – again, for all of the reasons stated above.

What about the 13 percent of schools which replied that they do not regularly vision screen their students? Most of these schools have tools to conduct vision screening. They simply do not currently require it, and choose to do it upon request or for children in special education courses.

Roughly 50 percent are charter schools. One-third are non-Title I schools. This puts non-screening, Title I schools at around 8 percent of all public schools in Arizona. How do we address this 8 percent, the truly under-resourced? The Arizona Department of Health Services has vision screening kits available at no cost. Philanthropy has pledged to provide additional kits if necessary. Service groups such as the Lions Club or local nonprofits often conduct screenings for schools. Where available, PTAs mobilize volunteers to serve.

The limited opposition to this bill is based around the idea that it is an unfunded mandate, and therefore an undue burden on schools. Recent news coverage lumped SB1456 in with other unfunded mandates and painted an overwrought picture of principals choosing between finding money for these mandates vs. paying teachers and school bus drivers. It’s a picture we can all sympathize with, but the reality is that the vast majority of schools already vision screen, and passing SB1456 into law won’t force such decisions.

What passing SB 1456 into law will do is equitably enable all of our children to avoid the significant negative life impacts that come from compromised learning, negative experiences with the institution of education, and the possibility of being stigmatized as “not good enough” so early in life. No child in Arizona deserves anything less.

— Suzanne Pfister is president and CEO of Vitalyst Health Foundation.

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