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November 21, 2013
Viewpoints: How to make students better learners? Start with glasses

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(Nov. 21 — By Bill Whalen, Special to The Bee)

California hasn't lacked for attempts at improving its public schools. Over the past two decades, we've reduced class sizes, directed more resources to lower-income districts and fiddled with what kids are taught and how they're tested. We can argue the results; we can't argue the intent.

That said, a road paved with the best of intentions has taken some clumsy detours. Take the $1 billion plan to provide iPads to the 650,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District - arguably, the worst programmatic rollout this side of Obamacare. It didn't take long for some tech-savvy teens to figure a way to get past security protocols and access Facebook (and, let's assume, some less savory corners of the Internet).

Then again, is high tech the quickest route to higher achievement? If the goal is to make students better learners, there's a low-tech, less costly way to go about it: make sure every child who sits in a California classroom has the proper vision to see the blackboard in front of them. And if they can't, provide them with a pair of reading specs that will, quite literally, open their eyes to a new world of knowledge.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown delved into this idea at a public event featuring Vision to Learn, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that's taken a mobile eye clinic into L.A.'s low-income communities, providing free eye exams and glasses for students in need. The concept, which has now branched out to Sacramento (thus the governor's participation) and Oakland, is the brainchild of Austin Beutner, a prominent Southland philanthropist and one-time L.A. deputy mayor and business czar.

As Beutner sees it, California schools are in crisis: 250,000 students, about 15 percent of the entire state's elementary school population, can't read what's written either in textbook print or classroom chalk - and educators contend that 80 percent of learning hinges on a student's ability to read a book or copy down what's on the blackboard. Meanwhile, roughly 95 percent of public school children who need glasses enter the classroom without them. Solve this disconnect, and perhaps the state can begin to unravel the larger riddle of how to rescue children from poverty and help them attain a secure future.

For Brown and state lawmakers, expanding on what Beutner has begun in Los Angeles - the state forming a partnership with Vision to Learn and branching further into disadvantaged communities - makes sense on at least four fronts, the first being the concept of a public-private partnership. The state, working in tandem with philanthropists and private charities, sends a strong message of shared values and concerns.

Second, this would be a modest investment for the state. It costs about $100 to give a kid an eye exam and provide a pair of glasses. Multiply that times 250,000 and it adds up to $25 million - "modest" in the sense that it represents but 1/2800th of the $70 billion that California will spend on all K-12 programs in the current fiscal year. Of course, the taxpayers' share of commitment would shrink if Brown and lawmakers managed to bring more philanthropists into the equation - an incentive for the state to be more innovative and ambitious in its outreach and marketing.

Third, as three-fourths of the vision-impaired schoolkids are Medi-Cal-eligible, there's the question of why insurers haven't stepped up and provided vision services that, in theory at least, California taxpayers already have financed. Be it a lack of outreach by providers, a lack of awareness on the part of recipients, or too complicated of a process for non-wonks to master, something is wrong. In fixing it, both Democrats and Republicans have a chance to score points. Say what you will about Obamacare, California is still a state where health providers make for convenient punching bags.

Finally, there's the other "vision" thing - Brown's belief that the state has to do more for low-income students and non-native English speakers.

Brown took a big first step in that direction in July when he signed a new law changing California's school funding - under his plan, LAUSD's per-pupil funding stands to grow from about $7,700 to $12,750 by the decade's end. But what's the sense in giving students more resources if their impaired vision impairs their learning skills?

At his Tuesday event, Brown seemed to grasp that concept. "I always like to come back to the basics," Brown said, "and I can't think of anything more basic than a child being able to see the blackboard."

Let's see if the governor backs up those words with money a few weeks from now when he huddles with his finance team to piece together another state budget. That and whether the concept will fly with state lawmakers who often can't see the forest for the trees.

When it comes to freeing up some state money to get more kids into glasses, the eyes should have it.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and a former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Reach Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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