Soda stand

Will diet soda be allowed back in Colorado high schools?

After a seven-year ban, diet soda would get the green light to return to high school vending machines if the State Board of Education approves proposed changes to state beverage rules next month.

Education department officials say they are making the recommendation to align Colorado rules with new federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden.

But a host of health-minded organizations are pushing back against the proposal, saying the state was ahead of the curve when it launched a policy banning soda and diet soda from schools in 2009 and is now poised to give a drink laced with artificial sweeteners a new toehold among teens.

“We just think our state has already done great work on this and it doesn’t make sense to roll it back,” said Leslie Levine, technical assistance and research manager at the advocacy group Livewell Colorado.

The proposed beverage rules, which the State Board will consider at its Aug. 10 meeting in Grand Junction, grew out of a regular review of state policies, officials said. If approved, they would take effect by the 2017-18 school year at the latest.

Even if the State Board gives the go-ahead for diet soda in high schools, individual districts could decide not to stock the drinks.

Beverage rules

Still, critics of the proposed rules worry about dangling unhealthy beverages in front of students and tempting cash-strapped schools with the promise of new soft drink revenue.

Diet soda, though low in calories, has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water, they argue.

“Allowing diet soda in schools just provides an unnecessary marketing opportunity to an industry that has fueled the obesity epidemic, and the tooth decay epidemic, I might add,” said Wyatt Hornsby, campaign director for Delta Dental Of Colorado Foundation.

The foundation is among more than a dozen groups ranging from health advocacy organizations to the Colorado PTA that have signed a letter urging State Board members to reconsider the diet soda proposal.

Colorado’s Healthy Beverage policy, originally passed by the State Board of Education in 2008, includes numerous provisions governing the type, size and calorie count of beverages allowed in schools outside of the federally regulated school meal program.

At the time, there were no federal rules governing such beverages, but that changed in 2014 when preliminary federal rules—called Smart Snacks in Schools standards—were approved. Just last week, the United States Department of Agriculture released the final version of the those rules.

Opponents of Colorado’s proposed rule changes say the federal rules represent the lowest bar states must clear, and don’t prevent stronger state-level policies.

“This is Colorado,” said Hornsby. “We pride ourselves on being the healthiest state in the nation so we need to aim higher.”

The current proposal to relax the beverage rules for the K-12 system comes just six months after Colorado significantly tightened beverage rules for kids in child care—banning all soda, flavored milks and sports drinks, and allowing 100 percent fruit juice just twice a week.

To some advocates, the conflicting efforts are perplexing.

But there’s also widespread recognition that many high-schoolers already have the independence and purchasing power to buy any sweet drink they want at the corner store.

School district officials have varying opinions on the proposed changes.

Ann Cooper, Boulder’s food service director, said via email she doesn’t think two sets of beverage guidelines—one federal and one state— would be onerous for districts. She also said diet soda shouldn’t be allowed in schools.

Kara Sample, assistant director of nutrition services in Weld County District 6, supports aligning Colorado’s Healthy Beverage policy to federal rules. She likened Colorado’s rules to an onion, with several layers of requirements that can be confusing to vendors and school district personnel.

Still, she said she was saddened that diet soda is allowable under the federal rules and that she’d be happy with a prohibition on diet soda in the new Colorado rules if that was one of the only major differences from federal rules.

Below are public comments on the proposed changes to the Healthy Beverage Policy. The education department recommends written comments be received by August 3, but will accept them up to and during the day of the State Board hearing.

Poverty in America

A Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection: Could vacant schools help fight homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.


*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.