Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport

By John Schlitt, President, School-Based Health Alliance

Democracy is not a spectator sport, as the saying goes. The resistance marches and noisy town hall meetings between elected officials and constituents across the nation are a great reminder that democracies thrive when citizens engage. Participation is a necessary ingredient.

This month, in celebration of national school-based health care awareness month, hundreds of young people and their adult allies are crowding into state capitols around the country to participate in the democratic process. They are rallying in capitol rotundas, testifying in legislative briefings, meeting one-on-one with their elected officials, and hosting site visits with decision-makers to tell the story of school-based health care. These student advocates are holding lawmakers accountable for a sustained public commitment to their health, wellbeing, and academic success.

Nine 6th grade students and their teacher from IS88 (a middle school in Brooklyn) meet with New York State Assembly Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz at the State Capital in Albany, NY in support of National School-Based Health Care Awareness Month. Each student shared their stories about why their nurse practitioner and SBHC, which is operated by the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone, are important and should be supported. One student said: “When I get sick I can go the school-based health center in my school and my mom doesn’t have to take off from work and I won’t miss school.”


Here in the nation’s capital, U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Congressman John Sarbanes (D-MD) lead the charge to re-introduce The Hallways to Health Act (S.356/H.R.1027), a legislative package of federal policies to support the continued growth of school-based health centers. Introduced on Monday, February 13, the bill will create a federal SBHC grant initiative; make funding available to expand the reach of school health care through telemedicine and community outreach workers; and direct states to protect Medicaid reimbursement to SBHCs.

We’ve no shortage of Democratic supporters ready to sign on as bill cosponsors. Thanks to your persistent advocacy, at least two dozen or so Members are reliably onboard. But we’ll never get Hallways enacted with legislators from only one side of the Congressional aisle—especially when that side has limited authority to conduct hearings or advance legislation through the political machinery.

We need a bipartisan coalition of backers—which means we must turn our Republican acquaintances into friends and champions of SBHCs. I believe we can broaden our political bench. After all, assuring that every child thrives isn’t exclusively a Democratic value. Giving students the supports they need to succeed in school and life isn’t solely a blue state solution. Republicans want these outcomes too.

If democracy is, indeed, a contact sport, the playing field is decidedly local. This February, make the commitment to get in the game. Connect with your elected representatives. Invite them to visit your health center. Introduce them to their young constituents. Let them hear firsthand about the needs of hard-working families who see success just out of reach for themselves and their children. Let them learn about the dreams of our students who are given access to opportunity so they can be healthy and thrive. I’ve seen politicians of all stripes transformed by a visit to a school-based health center. They may walk in a sceptic, but leave wondering, “Why we can’t deliver this to every child?”

Make that call. It’s no time for spectators.


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