Here’s another example of problematic research/advocacy of the type BoardBuzz criticized here.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) this summer issued a School Foods Report Card that gives 23 states a failing grade in nutrition policies. The misnomer here is that the report cards about “schools” are based on state laws, not necessarily on what’s actually happening in school districts.
The curious thing is the report itself acknowledges that, “there has been tremendous activity at the local level to improve school foods. Large school systems, such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, have strengthened their school foods policies.” And at another place it cites one study in which volunteers actually went to the trouble of visiting schools to see what was happening nutrition-wise (which in this case, they say, wasn’t pretty).
But then it goes on to say this:
While policies for school meals are determined at the federal level, states have broad authority to address the nutritional quality of foods sold outside of meals. Thus, we analyzed state policies for foods sold outside of meals through vending, a la carte, school stores, and fundraisers.
So CSPI did online research of state laws and called state officials to see what mandates their states had. And they issued the grades based solely on how much regulation the state imposes. That’s a whole lot easier than finding out what school districts may be doing on their own, but, as we said, convenience of benchmarking and lobbying is not the same as what’s ultimately best for communities and children.
Nonetheless there’s some predictable fretting going on in response to the grades. “Illinois was handed a report card Friday, but it wasn’t one to brag about,” says this item.
This op-ed by Washington state senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Shelley Curtis of the Children’s Alliance says, “Clearly, we need to do more in our public schools and communities to address childhood obesity more effectively” and “public schools can, and should, be a proactive part of the solution.” But then only one of their recommendations specifically is about how the state can “assist local school districts.” Some of the others are, or could be, more state mandates instead of exhortations and assistance to school boards.
But maybe the best example is this reaction from Utah’s state assistant director for national school lunch and breakfast:
“I talked to people in many of the 28 states that didn’t fail, and most of them had statewide legislation that regulated the types of food that could be sold in vending machines, a la carte, at school stores or as fundraisers,’ she said.
Well, yeah. That’s how you get the grade. Under this analysis, state legislation is the end in itself, not the means. For all we know, school districts may be doing a great job in some of the states that got an ‘F.’ In fact, if state lawmakers decided not to enact a one-size-fits-all rule precisely because school districts were doing a great job, they’d earn their state an ‘F.’
For the record, we’re all for school boards and school districts taking a hard look at this issue. And they’re doing it. But a policy wonk and public interest world that can’t be bothered to look any closer than the state level is seriously missing the boat—especially in public education.