Improved learning is one of the obvious benefits of making sure that elementary school students are healthy. However, Orange County public schools have a disturbingly low rate of compliance with a state requirement that children entering first grade have physical exams.

That's a shame, and school districts need to make more of an impression on parents about the value of such screening.

The Orange County Health Care Agency estimates that nearly a third of first-graders are not checked out medically before they start classes.

Much of the problem is traceable to a loophole in state law, which enables parents to waive the exam for religious or cultural reasons, even though the point of the exams since first conducted in 1975 has been to identify developmental problems or disabilities that could affect a child's ability to learn.

The waiver is easily claimed by anyone, even though officials estimate that less than 5% of Orange County's population actually has legitimate prohibitions.

Some of this can be traced to misunderstanding. Parents need to know that they don't have to go out and get another physical if a child has had a physical within 18 months of enrollment.

Moreover, Proposition 99 has changed the ground rules, offering money to Orange County to expand physicals to all low- and moderate-income children through age 18.

So there's no excuse. At registration time, school districts should make an extra effort to educate parents.

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