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In our opinion: Kids count

Published: Monday, July 1 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Last Tuesday was one of those instances when Utah lawmakers nixed a bill, SB71, to provide pre-school for at-risk kids. While they tout the importance of children, families, education, caring for those in need and promoting private/public partnerships, they seem to have abandoned those beliefs in this case.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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The latest report on the state of children in America gives Utahns the choice of looking at a glass mostly full, or one that keeps dribbling away. While the state ranks relatively high in the annual assessment (14th nationally), the ranking is falling, and that is reason for concern. Only four years ago, the state ranked third.

Not that the annual KIDS Count, published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is the definitive word on the wellbeing of all children, but it does offer insight into factors that most impact kids, for better or worse, in four categories — health, education, economic status and family and community support systems. In two of those areas, Utah does well and the data give reason for optimism. In two other areas, not so much.

Overall, the state's 14th ranking is impressive. Utah is the first among all Western states to show up on the list, which is led by states in the Northeast plus Minnesota. Utah clearly has an advantage when it comes to stable and committed families, ranking second overall in the Family and Community section of the report. Utah has a much lower percentage of children in single-parent families than the national average. It has more children in families where the head of household has at least a high school diploma and it has far fewer teen births per thousand than the average.

Also, only 3 percent of Utah children live in high poverty areas, compared with 12 percent nationally.

This speaks well for how seriously most Utahns take the notion of marriage and family, which mitigates the need for spending on social programs down the line.

The ranking in the area of education, 30th, is the most disappointing, but it could be solved with some innovative approaches. Two-thirds of Utah eighth graders are not proficient in math — a percentage below the national average. Separately, the survey suggests educational success is influenced by pre-school education. In Utah, only 40 percent of kids receive some pre-kindergarten schooling, also below the national average.

During the last legislative session, Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, sponsored a bill that would have provided this type of early education without costing the state. The bill would have gotten willing private investors to invest $10 million in preschool programs. The state then would have repaid the money only if the program could demonstrate long-term success.

The effort failed, but it demonstrated exactly the type of innovation that will be needed to improve education within the constraints of limited budgets.

Utah's ranking also has fallen in the area of economic status, and some of the data included in the report paints a disturbing picture. Sixteen percent of Utah kids live under the poverty line. Twenty percent of kids live in homes where the parents are not employed full-time, and that percentage has grown over a five-year period.

Part of the decline in the number of children living in financially challenged households can be attributed to the effects of recession, but Utah generally has fared better than the nation as a whole in most economic measurements, while the data on children living in poverty basically mirrors the national trend. The KIDS Count numbers therefore argue in favor of giving programs that help children break through a cycle of poverty a higher public policy priority.

It's hard to find too many reasons to be upset with such a high overall score as measured by this report, especially when it is so much better than other states in the region (New Mexico finished dead last, with Nevada and Arizona not far behind).

Any such report presents a certain amount of subjectivity based on agendas, but the raw data in this study gives Utah lawmakers and other leaders a good indication of where to place priorities. The wellbeing of children and families must always be at the top of the state's concerns.

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