Even as Obama-care (aka "The Guaranteed Profits for Insurance Corporations Act") stumbles and bumbles its way into a compromised and inadequate existence, some steps are being taken in Vermont that will at least improve dental health care opportunities. Republican State Senator Kevin Mullen of Rutland has introduced S.235 which will establish a pilot program for a network of Community Dental Health Coordinators. This effort will bring dental health practitioners to schools or community centers in areas where access to affordable dental care has been problematic.

CDHCs are designed to bridge some of the difficulties that poorer rural Vermonters face when in need of health care -- long distances from providers, no available money left after paying for rent, utilities and groceries, unfamiliarity and un-ease with dealing with health care professionals and a legacy of infrequent or no regular contacts with health care providers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has been pushing for community health centers and was recently in Swanton to highlight their community dental clinic operating at the Missiquoi Valley Union High School. There are also school clinics in Bennington, Tunbridge and Burlington. These clinics are giving community members, and especially students a chance to heal dental problems that can act as substantial impediments to learning and working productively. So far, response to these initiatives has been positive and Sanders hopes to help more get funded and started.

Other high schools without clinics are also working to provide much needed dental treatment for their school populations. At Leland & Gray Union High School in Townshend, principal Dorinne Dorfman has partnered with a local dentist to remediate unmet dental needs saying:

"What inspired me was that after three years on the job, I saw students' teeth decaying in front of my eyes, and knowing the huge impact that a lack of dental care has on a student in the present and in the future."

With a $1,500 grant from the Stratton Foundation, she initiated the program and by the end of the first day, nearly all of the funds where spent. This work only started to meet the needs of the community, so, with the cooperation of the dental practitioners, they kept providing the needed services while Dorfman pledged to find the money somewhere. Once again the Stratton Foundation recognizing the need and value of this program donated another $3,000, which will keep the program funded through March or so when the principal will once again be dialing for dollars to meet the dental health needs of her students.

All of these efforts are admirable and good for Vermont and for Vermonters. But they lead to a necessary question. Why is it that instead of promoting teaching and learning, instead of being able to devote all of their time to making sure that students are progressing adequately and meeting the ever growing demands of accountability being made by federal and state legislation, principals find an increasing percent of their job to resemble college presidents' or politicians' who spend half their time on the telephone in search of someone with money who might be convinced to share some with a needy student population?

If we realize the scope of the need, and the degree to which principals must do this work simply in order to get their students into a position of being able to learn in the first place, will we then be able to temper the steady rumblings of discontent about low performing students not meeting these new more rigorous expectations?

When people throw up their arms in disgust at local test scores, do they really take into account the extra work that all teachers and administrators must now do to simply have the students ready to learn? It is common for 50 percent or more of a school population to be eligible for free or reduced lunch subsidies. Schools have taken to providing breakfasts, snacks and after school food/activities to ensure that students have the energy to do the hard work of learning. Schools are compelled by law to keep watch and report unsafe home situations that may become known in some way to school employees. Schools have had to hire more and more counselors to deal with mental health issues of students and legal requirements of state social welfare agencies.

Instead of focusing on schools as scapegoats for failing our children. Why don't we hold the political class responsible for the general health and well being of the populace? If society cared enough about our children to have them housed, fed and healthy from birth onward, then our schools could focus on what their job is supposed to be - educating them. As long as we condemn schools to do the social service work that we refuse to pay for elsewhere, it is unrealistic to think that they will be able to magically lift Vermont's substantial disparate population of low income residents into a position of economic and social well being and prosperity.

Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane.