When it comes to improving educational test scores and graduation rates in Rhode Island schools, particularly in the state’s urban core cities, much of the focus has been on how to boost student performance, teacher preparation and parent involvement.
But a new study, release on March 13 by The Providence Plan, points to key factor that has been absent from the dialogue: the linkage between low educational performance and high blood lead levels.
And, for the first time, the study calculates the extra educational costs of elevated levels of lead in school children as costing up to $17 million in 2012.
Much of the exposure comes from deteriorated lead paint in older, rental properties.
It’s not just an educational problem, but a future workforce problem, too, according to Jim Lucht, director of The Providence Plan’s Information Group. “Anything that makes a kid less ready to succeed, such as the physical and cognitive consequences lead exposure, is a serious disadvantage,” Lucht said.
Providence Business News asked Lucht to talk about the importance of the new study.
PBN: According to your new study, elevated levels of lead may cost up to $17 million in extra educational costs in Rhode Island. Is this the first time that the actual costs have been quantified? What are some of the other costs that have not been quantified?
LUCHT: We calculated the potential costs of lead exposure using an innovative method of linking health and educational records for individual children. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time this has ever been done in Rhode Island.
We did not attempt to calculate noneducational or lifelong costs such as medical treatment, lost earnings, or involvement with the justice system, but according to other studies, these can be substantial.
PBN: The study, released through RI DataHUB, indicates that there are direct correlations between poor performance on NECAP testing and elevated blood lead levels in school children. Can you explain those findings?
LUCHT: The data indicate a consistent correlation between elevated blood lead levels and decreased NECAP performance, even when you consider other factors such as poverty.
For example, the percent of third-graders proficient in reading drops steadily, from 78 to 48 percent, as lead exposure increases from the lowest to highest levels.
For kids who qualify for free lunch (a common poverty measure), proficiency rates drop from 63 to 40 percent.
Lead exposure also correlates with other measures such as grade repetition and absenteeism.
Additionally, while lead may not be directly related to absenteeism, it is a good indicator of unhealthy housing conditions that trigger asthma, a major cause of chronic absenteeism.
PBN: Elevated blood lead levels are consistently found in urban core centers in Rhode Island. What are the causes?
LUCHT: Most lead exposure comes from deteriorated lead paint. Rhode Island’s urban core has a large concentration of very old, mostly rental housing. Much of it is poorly maintained either through neglect of absentee landlords or inability of the owner to pay for improvements.
PBN: From an economic standpoint, how do the educational consequences translate into workforce problems?
LUCHT: I’m not an economist but it seems pretty clear that Rhode Island needs a well-prepared and highly skilled workforce in order to be prosperous. Anything that makes kids less ready to succeed, such as the physical and cognitive consequences lead exposure or living somewhere where their asthma can’t be controlled, is a serious disadvantage.
PBN: What remedies would you propose to correct this dismal situation?
LUCHT: Fixing this problem is really going to require a combination of efforts around enforcement, education, and providing help where the owner can’t afford to do the repairs themselves.
A forthcoming study Providence Plan did in partnership with the R.I. Health Department indicates that in urban communities less than 25 percent of properties subject to the lead law have any kind of lead safety certificate as required by the law. More enforcement particularly at the municipal level is necessary.
And while there is a greater awareness of lead hazards, we need to maintain education and outreach efforts for both residents and those performing renovation work.
Lastly, efforts like the Green and Healthy Housing Initiative that target different funding sources to make housing both healthy and efficient are critical. In the end it comes down to where you want to put your money. Prevention is much cheaper in the long run.