Lead in School Drinking Water—What Families Need to Know

sb550-fountainNote: Illinois PTA has an advocacy campaign running now through January 10, 2017 to urge the Illinois House to join the Illinois Senate in passing SB550, a bill that would require testing every unique drinking water source in all Illinois schools and report high lead levels to families.

If you were looking to make a pipe, lead looks to be just about the perfect metal to use. It’s fairly soft as metals go, so it’s easy to work with. It doesn’t react strongly with water like iron or steel, so water running in the pipe or in the ground around the pipe won’t make the pipe corrode to a significant. It’s relatively abundant and has been mined for millennia. It seems like the perfect metal for the job; so much so that the word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. There’s just one problem with lead—exposure to it causes numerous health problems for adults and especially children.

How Lead Gets in Drinking Water

While lead doesn’t react strongly to water like iron or steel, it still corrodes (like iron rusts) when exposed to water, especially if the water has high acidity or low mineral content. Lead poisoning in ancient Rome was not due to its lead pipes, as the high calcium levels in the water formed a protective layer inside the pipes between the lead pipe and the water. It was the use of lead cookware and as an additive in food (e.g., as a preservative in wine) that resulted in lead poisoning.

In the United States, lead pipes were used not only in indoor plumbing but also in the line that ran from the water main to the house. When copper pipes were used, they were often connected with brass fittings (which contain small amounts of lead to make them easier to make) or with lead solder. The longer that water is exposed to these lead-containing items, the higher the lead level in the water. This is why testing for lead in water uses the “first draw” (i.e., water that has sat in the pipe for a while) for the sample.

Homes and buildings built after 1986 are less likely to have lead pipes, brass fixtures and fittings, or lead solder. That is due to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) using the Safe Drinking Water Act to reduce the maximum allowable lead content of pipes, fittings, fixtures, and solder in order to be considered safe to use for drinking water.

Lead Exposure Standards

The EPA is required under the Safe Drinking Water Act to determine the level of contaminants in drinking water at which no health effects are likely to occur. These are non-enforceable health goals based only on possible health risks and are known as Maximum Contaminant Level Goals (MCLGs). For lead in drinking water, the MCLG is zero because any exposure to lead can lead to health issues and because lead bioaccumulates (i.e., builds up over time) in the body.

Since drinking water suppliers likely cannot completely eliminate lead, EPA has set an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). One part per billion is like one grain of sand in a sandbox, one drop of ink in a 14,000 gallon backyard swimming pool, or one second in 32 years. The 15 ppb action level was set based on costs and benefits of removing lead from drinking water, not on safety like the MCLG above.

When measuring lead exposure in people, a blood sample is tested. For adults, the level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends taking action is 10 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL). For children, the level is only 5 μg/dL due to the increased health effects of lead on their development and their smaller body size.

It is important to note that drinking water is not the only way that children are exposed to lead. Lead in paint, dust, sole, air, and food may also be sources of lead exposure for children. EPA estimates that drinking water can make up to 20% or more of a person’s exposure to lead. For infants who consume mostly powdered formula mixed with water, 40% to 60% of their exposure can come from drinking water.

Health Effects of Lead on Children

Even low levels of lead exposure in children can result in:

  • Behavior and learning problems
  • Permanent intellectual disability
  • Reduced ability to pay attention
  • Slowed growth
  • Hearing problems
  • Kidney failure
  • Anemia

In addition, lead builds up in our bodies over time, where it is stored in bones along with calcium. During pregnancy, lead is released from the mother’s bones along with maternal calcium and is used to help form the bones of the fetus. This is especially true if the mother does not have enough calcium in her diet. Lead in the mother’s bloodstream can also cross the placental barrier, exposing the fetus to lead. This in utero lead exposure can result in reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth.

School Drinking Water and Lead

As noted above, lead levels in drinking water increase over time as the water sits without moving. For schools, this effect can be particularly important because of how drinking water is used in schools. Afternoon and evening activities at a school are often limited to only part of the school building, meaning that water fountains and sinks in other parts of the building do not run water from the end of the school day until the beginning of the next day. Water is also likely to sit in pipes over weekends and school holidays and breaks.

What You Can Do

The first thing to do is join Illinois PTA’s campaign to pass SB550 in the Illinois House. This bill, which has already passed the Illinois Senate, would require every school in Illinois—public, private, and parochial—to test for lead in the water of every unique drinking water source and to report high lead levels to families. The campaign has a prewritten e-mail to send to your Illinois representative urging them to support SB550 during the lame duck session on January 9-10, 2017. All you need to do is provide your name, contact information, and address (so Voter Voice can look up who your representative is for you). It only takes a minute of your time to speak up for safe school drinking water.

In addition, the EPA has an information page on lead in drinking water, as does the CDC. EPA also provides a Safe Drinking Water Hotline that you can call or e-mail to get your questions answered. The CDC has a general lead exposure information page and information on how to prevent children’s exposure to lead.

The Illinois ESSA Plan Draft #2 Highlights

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The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became law almost one year ago. During this past year, Illinois and every other state has been working hard to develop a plan to implement ESSA in their state, with the final plan due to the US Department of Education on April 3, 2017. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has released the second draft of the state plan, with comments due to ISBE by December 27, 2016. Illinois PTA has been representing the voice of families and children on several of the state committees making recommendations during the creation of the plan. Here are the highlights of what is currently in the state plan.

Accountability

Under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), school accountability was determined by the results of a single test. In Illinois, that was the ISAT for grades 3 through 8 and the PSAE/ACT for high school juniors. Schools needed to have a specific percentage of students meeting or exceeding state standards as well as the same percentage of students in subgroups such as African-American students, Hispanic students, and special education students also meeting or exceeding state standards. Schools that did not meet those percentages (known as making Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP) were labeled as failing and subject to penalties. As a result, many states lowered their state standards and simplified their state tests to get as many students meeting or exceeding those lower standards.

With the development of the Common Core State Standards, implemented in Illinois as the New Illinois Learning Standards, a set of high-quality, high-expectation standards replace the older, lower standards. With those new standards came a new assessment aligned to those standards, the PARCC assessment. The PARCC test required students to demonstrate proficiency in what they had learned, not just memorized facts. But school accountability was still based on NCLB and its AYP standard. Under ESSA, that has changed significantly.

ESSA requires states to develop their own school accountability measure. The measure must include:

  • Student assessment
  • A second academic indicator (e.g., student growth, high school graduation rate, etc.)
  • English language proficiency
  • At least one other indicator of school quality or student success (e.g., Advanced Placement classes, family engagement, discipline reports, attendance, etc.)

States will determine what indicators they will use and how to weight each one in their accountability measure, but academic indicators must be given “significantly more” weight than school quality/student success indicators. It is unclear what the US Department of Education considers significantly more weight at this time, but Illinois’s draft plan #2 considers three different weights (70/30, 60/40, and 51/49). Depending on the weighting chosen, the annual assessment (now PARCC for grades 3-8 and the SAT for high school) will have a different level of importance in determining school accountability.

Illinois is currently considering student growth for its second academic indicator for at least grades 3 through 8 and possibly for high school as well. Draft plan #2 had four different growth models that are being looked at for the lower grades. A second high school assessment such as the PSAT may be needed to adequately growth at the high school level, though that approach comes with additional costs to the state. It may be possible to use a student’s 8th grade PARCC results as part of a high school growth indicator, but since that assessment is not used across the country or in private schools, it would be difficult to measure student growth for students who enter the Illinois public schools during their high school years.

Other accountability issues addressed in the draft plan include:

  • Reducing the size of identified subgroups to 20 (i.e., a school will only need 20 Pacific Islanders, for example, for those students’ data to be reported as a subgroup).
  • Creating a “Former English Language Learner (ELL)” subgroup to continue to track their progress after they are considered proficient in English.
  • Developing reporting for new groups, including homeless students, students in foster care, and students with a parent serving in the military.

ISBE is also reviewing all of the required data that schools and districts must provide to ensure that additional reporting requirements are not overly burdensome.

English Language Learners

Illinois has a state policy of educating students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) in their native language for core content or, where the native language is not as common, at least providing support in their native language, while also teaching English as a second language. As part of supporting ELLs, Illinois has been participating in the development of English language proficiency standards and assessments that incorporate the current college- and career-ready goals. ISBE will be meeting with stakeholders to determine what will constitute English language proficiency, with recommendations submitted by June 30, 2017.

ESSA also requires states to identify languages other than English that are present to a significant extent among the student population. For Illinois, 10 languages meet that standard, with Spanish being the most common. Illinois currently provides PARCC instructions in those 10 languages, but only the PARCC math assessment has been trans-adapted into Spanish. ISBE is considering public comments that suggested providing assessments in languages other than English when 30% or more of the ELL students speak the same language.

Title I Funding

In order to receive Title I funding, each school district in Illinois must submit a plan that was developed in consultation with stakeholders (e.g., families). Many of the required elements in this plan are similar to those under NCLB, but new requirements include:

  • How the district will identify and address disparities in teacher distribution.
  • How the district will ensure that every child is taught by a highly effective teacher.
  • How the district will support efforts to reduce the overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom, including high rates for specific subgroups of students.

ISBE is also adding two more requirements to the plan based on public comment that are not required under ESSA:

  • How the district will identify and address disparities in library resources.
  • How the district will support efforts to encourage and support the arts.

Providing Public Comment

Illinois PTA already serves on several of the committees helping ISBE to develop the state ESSA implementation plan. If you are interested in providing comments directly to ISBE regarding draft plan #2, submit them to essa@isbe.net no later than December 27, 2016. Be sure to include your name or your organization’s name, as well as the section number and the page number that your comment is addressing.

Every Student Counts—A New Report on Public Education in Illinois

The state of Illinois has a goal of 60% of Illinoisans with a post-secondary degree or credential by the year 2025. Today, thatnumber is 50%. Advance Illinois just released a new report, Every Student Counts—The State We’re In, that documents where public education stands in Illinois on several key measures related to that goal.

every-student-counts-report-coverThe report looks at important steps along a child’s education path, including:

  • Kindergarten Readiness (currently no data)
  • 4th Grade Reading (currently 35%)
  • 8th Grade Math (currently 32%)
  • College Readiness (currently 38%)
  • Post-Secondary Enrollment (currently 64%)
  • Post-Secondary Completion (currently 28%)
  • Adults with Post-Secondary Degrees/Credentials (currently 50%)

Each of these steps is an indicator of how prepared a student is for the next step up the education ladder. For example, 8th grade math scores correlate with ACT scores, a measure of college readiness, so a student with meeting the 8th grade math standards is on track to do well on the ACT and be ready to go to college or get a post-secondary certification after graduating high school.

The report also documents the poor job Illinois has done as a state in funding education overall as well as the inequitable distribution of the funds the state does provide. This is especially significant because, as the report notes, students from wealthier families do much better on every step listed above than their peers from low-income families.

In 2015, 43% of Illinois school districts had over half of their students living in low-income homes, up from 13% in 2005. Research shows that educating low-income students costs more because they often start school academically behind their more wealthy peers. Yet, as the report notes, Illinois is last in the nation by far in providing funding for low-income students. Ohio, which ranks firsts, spends $1.22 on a low-income student for every $1.00 spent on a non-low-income student. For Illinois, that figure is $0.81 spent on a low-income student for every $1.00 spent on a non-low-income student. This means that poorer students are too often faced with larger class sizes, older textbooks, less access to classes like art and music, and higher student activity fees—all the opposite of what they actually need.

High-quality preschool education can help low-income students come to kindergarten on track for long-term academic success. As recently as 2007, Illinois was a national leader in early childhood education with its Preschool for All initiative. The recession and state budget issues now mean that Illinois now has only 75% of the students in pre-K programs that it had five years ago, with many areas of the state needing to double their pre-K seats to meet the needs of families.

You can check out Advance Illinois’s website summarizing the report and download the full report. The Illinois General Assembly’s fall veto session ends today, and the stopgap spending measure expires before the new session convenes. Contact your legislator today to advocate for a comprehensive, fully-funded budget, and if a budget is not passed, plan now to contact them again when the General Assembly meets in the spring.

Open eBooks Provides Free Books to Children in Need

A critical part of a child’s academic success is learning to read and developing a love of reading. For many children, developing this love is hindered by a lack of access to books in their home. Now, Open eBooks is helping educators, librarians, and program leaders working with children from in-need families get free access to thousands of age-appropriate books through a phone app.

The initiative is a collaboration of literacy, library, publishing, and technology organizations that joined together to create the app (Android and iOS). The app requires someone working with children—teachers, librarians, after-school counselors, early childhood educators—to sign up for the program for free. They then request the number of free codes they need for the children they serve. Students then enter the code in their app to access the Open eBooks library.

The Open eBooks initiative began with the realization of the increasing access that students at all income levels have to technology at school. In addition, research has shown that 85% of families with children ages 6 to 13 living below the poverty level have access to mobile devices. The Open eBooks program has the ability to put far more books in the hands of children than could ever be accomplished with physical books.

Parents cannot sign up directly for Open eBooks, but they can encourage their child’s teacher or their school’s librarian to sign up for the program. The Open eBooks site walks educators through the process of signing up and getting free codes for children. The initiative also provides a flyer that you can share with your school about the program, as well as a flyer the school can send home with children with their access code once they sign up. Help every child develop a love of reading—encourage your school to sign up with Open eBooks.