Estimates are 3-4 million public school children lack the glasses they need
WASHINGTON D.C. – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and Vision To Learn Founder Austin Beutner highlighted the need to provide vision care for public school children at an event today which recognized the work of Vision To Learn. Secretary Becerra emphasized the critical role of vision health in academic success and how programs like Vision To Learn can help address widespread disparities in access to care.
“We know that when a student has trouble seeing the board, it negatively impacts their ability to learn,” said Secretary Becerra. “We must provide states the tools to address this issue and hold them accountable to ensure every student who needs glasses has them.”
Experts estimate three to four million children across the country go to school every day unable to see the board or pages of a textbook clearly. About one in four children will naturally need glasses. Children who need glasses and don’t have them are more likely to be misdiagnosed with behavioral issues in kindergarten, be labeled “slow” learners by 5th grade, and to drop out of high school. Unfortunately, in low-income urban and rural communities, most children who need glasses don’t have them due to financial constraints, language barriers, unresponsive health bureaucracies or the simple fact there are no eye care professionals in their neighborhood.
For the last decade, nonprofit charity Vision To Learn has worked to address the “glasses gap” by providing vision screenings, eye exams and glasses to kids where they are most days – at their neighborhood school. With a fleet of mobile vision clinics staffed with trained and licensed eye care professionals, Vision To Learn has helped ensure 2.3 million students across the country received vision screenings and provided more than 380,000 with glasses, all at no cost to the child or their family.
Across the country, Vision To Learn has found about 27% of school students need glasses, but more than 80% of those who need them don’t have them.
“By helping millions of children across the country, Vision To Learn has demonstrated a school-based solution to the problem can be both cost effective and scalable,” Vision To Learn Founder Austin Beutner said, “But millions more children still need help. It’s time for federal and state leaders to take action to help make sure every child in every school, everywhere in the country, has the glasses they need to succeed in school and in life.”
Secretary Becerra called on state leaders to take additional steps to identify student vision needs, develop statewide plans to address disparities in child vision care, and utilize available federal and state funding to support school-based vision care.
The impact of providing glasses to children at schools is shown in a study published in The Journal for the American Medical Association Ophthalmology by researchers from the Center for Research and Reform in Education and the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
The researchers conducted the largest and most rigorous study in the U.S. about the connection between glasses and academic achievement by comparing students’ standardized test scores before and after receiving glasses from Vision To Learn. Thousands of children from more than 100 schools in Baltimore participated in the study. The children who received glasses did much better in school and the impacts were greater than more costly measures such as lengthening the school day, providing computers, or creating charter schools. The children who showed the biggest gains, the equivalent of an additional four to six months of learning, were those who are often the hardest to help—students in the bottom quarter of their class academically and students with learning differences and disabilities.
So why isn’t every child getting the help they need at school? Sadly, outdated rules, inflexible school bureaucracies, reluctant insurance companies and unresponsive Medicaid administrators are still standing in the way. It’s up to federal and state leaders to get engaged and make this possible in every school across the country.
A national effort should start with the federal government encouraging states to set consistent, high standards for vision screenings. Currently, some states require screenings in most school grades while others do not require that a child be provided with one at all. The answer is simple; every child should receive a vision screening at a school every year. It’s quick, easy and relatively inexpensive.
Then all states should follow the example of California, South Carolina, Hawaii, Delaware, Pennsylvania and others where Vision To Learn has worked to update laws and rules to make it possible for children who do not pass a vision screening to receive a proper eye exam at school.
And ﬁnally, federal and state Medicaid oﬃcials need to make sure the funding is in place to cover the costs. They need to get tough with insurers to make sure the coverage system is working as Congress intended. Medicaid along with the Children’s Health Insurance Program can pay for it. Democrats and Republicans have been united on this issue since Medicaid was passed in 1965—a child from a family living in poverty should be provided with proper eye care.
Federal health and education officials can tie this all together by establishing the goal that every school child who needs glasses should have them. All 50 states need to publicly share their plan to make sure at least 90% of school children have the glasses they need by the start of the 2024 school year. When children come to school, they’re provided with food, textbooks and much of what they need to get the most out of their education. Glasses should be on the list.
Vision To Learn’s program began with a single mobile clinic in Los Angeles in 2012, helping kids in low-income communities that included then-Rep. Becerra’s Congressional District. As the program has expanded to help kids throughout the country, several states have taken steps to boost the program’s ability to reach more kids in need. In South Carolina and California, legislators passed laws eliminating regulatory barriers to mobile vision care. In Ohio, “Pay for Success” funding was allocated to support Vision To Learn’s operation in the rural Appalachian southeast. In Delaware, Hawaii, Mississippi and Pennsylvania, state leaders established “CHIP Health Service Initiatives” to utilize unspent federal dollars to reimburse vision care for uninsured children.
Noyes Elementary School is one of 23 DCPS schools where Vision To Learn has helped children in the past year and a half. At Noyes, 240 students were provided vision screenings, 78 with eye exams, and 55 with glasses.
DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis B. Ferebee participated in Monday’s event and thanked Vision To Learn for helping DCPS students.
“Vision To Learn’s program has helped thousands of our students who would otherwise have gone entirely without vision care,” said Chancellor Ferebee. “This program should be replicated in schools across the country.”
About Vision To Learn
Vision To Learn, a non-profit charity, was founded in 2012 by Austin Beutner and the Beutner Family Foundation. The program has helped children in more than 750 low-income communities in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Vision To Learn serves the needs of the hardest-to-reach children; about 90% of kids served by Vision To Learn live in poverty and about 85% are Black and Latino. Vision To Learn has helped ensure more than 2.3 million children received a vision screening and provided more than 380,000 with glasses – all at no cost to the child or their family. For more information on Vision To Learn, please visit www.visiontolearn.org.