EDITORIAL: Nonprofit has clear vision for helping students

Gov. Jerry Brown stood before 30 fidgety kids at Jefferson Elementary School in the Natomas Unified School District last week. All were wearing brand-new, free glasses at a school where nearly 80% of students come from lower-income families.

"I didn't realize so many kids weren't getting glasses," Brown said as he took in the mobile eye clinic, modeled on bookmobiles and launched by the nonprofit Vision to Learn.

The man behind the effort, Austin Beutner, who made a fortune in investment banking, has made it his mission to get eyeglasses to kids who need them. Why? "My mom was a public school reading teacher," he told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board. "I was a public school kid."

A friend pointed him to the problem. How big could it be? He hired a researcher to find out.

Beutner rattles off statistics: Among students entering first grade in California public schools, 95% of students who need glasses do not have them. Nearly one in seven students in kindergarten through fifth grade lack the glasses they need to learn. That's a quarter-million California kids.

No wonder so many kids struggle in school. Many students identified as "problem learners" actually have vision problems.

So far, Vision to Learn -- whose motto is "Focus on the Future" -- has helped about 15,000 kids, primarily in the Los Angeles area, at a cost of about $100 a student.

In February, Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson announced that Vision to Learn would expand to the city's five school districts. Starting two weeks ago, mobile clinics have been doing 30 eye exams a day. Kids pick out frames and get their glasses a week later.

In Natomas Unified, 147 kids have received eye exams. Nearly 100 have received glasses. Ultimately, the mayor hopes 6,000 to 8,000 Sacramento kids will get glasses.

Beutner started this with his own money to see if mobile clinics would work. The UCLA School of Medicine and Public Health did a study and found that classroom performance improved, as did student focus and behavior.

To take this statewide and reach all 250,000 kids, Beutner doesn't believe we need more money. What we need, he says, is willingness to align doctors, schools and Medi-Cal reimbursements. His hope for last week's event was that the governor would see the eye clinic bus and the kids at Jefferson Elementary and "become a believer."

Brown should lead the effort to fix the bureaucratic bottlenecks so that, in Beutner's words, the mobile clinics can "become a proper part of the Medi-Cal system." As Brown rightly noted at Jefferson Elementary, "a child being able to see the blackboard and trees with clarity and precision" is basic stuff and easy to fix.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if Vision to Learn could blanket the state and help students with poor eyesight in Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Hanford, too?