California nearly last in children’s well-being

July 25, 2012

California is doing slightly better by its kids but still has a long way to go, ranking 41st out of 50 states in the overall well-being of children. The 2012 Kids Count report, released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, measures how well children are faring on 16 different indicators in education, economic well-being, health, and family and community.

California showed improvements in 10 of the 16 categories, including education. The brightest spot is health, where it ranked 23rd, primarily due to good

2012 Kids Count: California measures of child well-being. Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation. (click to enlarge)

prenatal care and increasing numbers of children with health insurance. But despite some improvements in other categories, the state was near the bottom everywhere else, ranking 42nd in family and community, 43rd in education, and 45th in economic well-being.

“This report shows California is continuing to sell children short,” said Ted Lempert, President of the Oakland-based Children Now, in a written statement.

Last year, California came in at 16th nationwide, mostly on the strength of health issues, but the Casey Foundation revamped its formula this year to give greater weight to education and some economic factors. “When they shored up those indicators, we collapsed,” Lempert told EdSource.

California did improve a little in education. The number of children who are not proficient in reading by fourth grade fell from 79 percent in 2005 to 75 percent in 2011, and the number of eighth grade students not proficient in math dropped from 78 percent to 75 percent. The high school graduation rate also rose a bit.

“I’m going to celebrate the good news,” said Lempert, acknowledging that being in the bottom ten is troubling. “We’ve been hovering a little lower than that, so it’s great that we’re climbing a little, but that trend needs to go up really dramatically, and obviously there’ s a concern that we’d be going in the other direction.”

National picture mixed

Nearly every state showed some improvements in education and health, but, due to the recession, the results were almost universally dismal for economic well-being.

Kids Count: National trends in economic well-being. Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation. (Click to enlarge)

“This is especially troubling because growing up in poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development,” said Laura Speer, the national coordinator for Kids Count at the Casey Foundation.  “It can really affect everything from their cognitive development and their ability to learn, to their social and emotional development and their overall health.”

The impact of the recession has disproportionately hit children of color.  Native American and African American children are nearly twice as likely as white children to be living in families where their parents don’t have a steady job.

The racial divide in education is almost as pronounced.  “We should all be very troubled to learn that well more than half, 58 percent, of white fourth graders had yet to achieve reading proficiency in 2011, yet the numbers for their Latino, African American and American Indian classmates were even worse, with more than 80 percent unable to read well by the time they entered fourth grade,” said Casey Foundation President and CEO Patrick McCarthy.

2012 Kids Count- reading proficiency by race. Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation. (click to enlarge).

California’s gap is nearly identical.  Even though scores increased by a few percentage points, more than 80 percent of African American fourth graders and 88 percent of Latino fourth graders scored below proficient in reading compared to 60 percent of white students.

Cuts may make data out-of-date

The budget cuts and uncertainty surrounding California’s revenues may have already begun to lower the state’s ranking.  Last month, the Legislature approved a bill advocated by Gov. Jerry Brown to eliminate the state’s Healthy Families insurance program that serves 900,000 low-income children and their families and shift them into the state’s Medi-Cal system.  Brown said the move would save about $13 million this year.

Lawmakers and the Governor have promised that they’ll make every effort to ensure that all eligible kids remain covered.  Children Now’s Lempert said advocates are working hard to make the transfer smooth, but there could be losses, and not just in numbers.  “The guarantee is that none of those kids will totally drop off,” he said, but “the quality might not be as strong.”

The state-funded preschool program is already losing enrollment.  According to Kids Count, 52 percent of young children in California don’t attend preschool, 1 percent over the national average.  But cutbacks over the last two years have eliminated between 10,000 and 20,000 slots.

For this year, lawmakers rejected most of Brown’s harshest cuts, but did agree to reduce part-day preschool by $30 million and, for the first time, impose a sliding scale fee for parents with children in the part-day program.

Scott Moore, senior policy adviser for Preschool California, said those changes could double the number of lost slots for low-income children over two years, despite years of neural science research showing that children who attend high quality early childhood education programs are more likely to succeed in school and in life.

There is no secret sauce required to improve children’s well-being.  “We actually know what it takes for children to thrive,” said Casey president McCarthy, citing three key factors:

The largest obstacle is what McCarthy calls the “persistent paralysis of our current political culture.”  He said that the way to get legislative action is by finding common ground.

Right now, the “political will for children is disaggregated,” agreed Lempert.  Advocacy groups need to come out of their silos and work together like they did to improve prenatal and infant care.

“The state made it a priority and it made a difference,” Lempert said.  “We need to do that in education and early education and say we’re going to make ourselves one of the top states in education, and we’re going to stick with it until we are.”

Kathryn Baron is senior reporter at EdSource Today.  Contact Kathryn Baron.

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