Southern Analysis & Next Steps

2019 Kids Count Report

2019 Kids Count Report-Southern Analysis & Next Steps

By Sujith Cherukumilli // June 30, 2019

In June 2019, the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) released their 2019 Kids Count Data Book, one of the most comprehensive studies of child well-being available to the public. Released annually, the report grounds its findings in five overarching categories: overall child well-being, economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Based on an individual state’s scores in the five listed categories and the quality of programs and opportunities available for children in that state, AECF assigns the state a ranking in each category and an overall ranking comparing it to other states. The report shows that education continues to be an area of concern for many states, particularly throughout the South; only one southern state made it into the top 10 in education rankings, while five of the bottom 10 spots were occupied by southern states. The troubling trends for educational outcomes throughout the South signal cause for concern as well as continuing equity-centered advocacy. It also represents an opportunity for improvements focused on a specific set of data-informed recommendations.

Spotlight: Georgia
As a native of Georgia and a student of Georgia public schools for the entirety of my K-12 education, I paid close attention to Georgia’s ranking in each child well-being indicator and monitored the state’s progression or regression compared to 2018’s rankings. Georgia demonstrated growth between 2018 and 2019 in the overall child well-being category by shifting up from 39th to 38th, but remained stagnant in its education ranking at 34th nationwide, despite slight improvements in fourth grade reading proficiency rates and eighth grade math proficiency rates. The primary indicators used to calculate Georgia’s and other states’ education ranking include the following: the rate of young children not enrolled in high-quality early childhood education programs, the percentage of fourth graders not proficient in reading, the rate of eighth graders not proficient in math, the high school graduation rate, and the racial and ethnic disparities present in each of the indicators.

While improvements in the critical areas of math and reading proficiency are important to preparing Georgia’s students for an opportunity-rich future, the improvements also signify incremental progress that fails to reflect the urgency of adequately educating the state’s children. Data cited in the Kids Count report show that only 35 percent of fourth graders in Georgia are at or above proficient in reading, a one percent uptick from two years prior. Similarly, eighth grade math proficiency levels rose from a dismal 28 percent in 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data to a slightly better 31 percent in 2017 NAEP data. This demonstrated that only 3 out of every 10 students in Georgia can perform at or above grade-level in mathematics. Additionally, while Georgia outperformed many other southern states in average eighth grade math proficiency levels for African American students, a significant proficiency disparity in eighth grade exists between white students and students of color, as well as between students eligible for free or reduced lunch and students ineligible for free or reduced lunch. 2017 NAEP data show that 44 percent of white students scored at or above proficient in eighth grade math, while 14 percent of African American students and 23 percent of Hispanic students, respectively, scored at or above proficient. Among students eligible for free or reduced lunch, 17 percent scored at or above proficient compared to 50 percent of ineligible students scoring at or above proficient. Persistently disparate achievement levels between demographic and socioeconomic groups demonstrate that while Georgia’s slowly-rising proficiency rates in two key subject areas reflect an upward trend in the state’s overall educational outcomes, the opportunities available for marginalized students to show the same growth and similar results are inequitable at best and unavailable at worst.

Southern Snapshot

Annie E. Casey Foundation Southern Education Rankings
1) Virginia (6)
2) Maryland (11)
3) North Carolina (22)
4) Florida (24)
5) Missouri (25)
6) Delaware (26)
7) Kentucky (27)
8) Texas (30)
9) Arkansas (32)
10) Tennessee (33)
11) Georgia (34)
12) Alabama (38)
13) South Carolina (42)
14) West Virginia (43)
15) Mississippi (44)
16) Oklahoma (45)
17) Louisiana (48)

Among all southern states, the three that performed the highest in the Kids Count report’s education rankings were Virginia (6th), Maryland (11th), and North Carolina (22nd), while the three that continue to face the most significant challenges in educational quality are Louisiana (48th), Oklahoma (45th), and Mississippi (44th). Analysis of the report’s data also points to inadequate children’s healthcare services and lower levels of economic and overall well-being in the lowest-ranking southern states for education, creating a correlation and indisputable connection between a child’s quality of life and educational outcomes. A common challenge in a number of southern states, despite their ranking, mirrors a nationwide trend – students are failing to meet proficiency benchmarks in two key subjects, reading and math. While a range of factors may be responsible for low proficiency rates, states’ inaction to update funding formulas to accurately reflect the needs of an economically- and ethnically-diverse student population fosters an incubator for inequity and, consequently, diminishes opportunities for educational success.

Additionally, southern states continue to be among the lowest nationwide in school funding, despite recent pushes in some states to increase per-pupil allocations. Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that despite funding increases fueled by teacher activism, inflation-adjusted per-pupil funding levels in seven southern states – Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi – have failed to recover from deep cuts over the last 11 years. A supporting study from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) solidifies the correlation between school funding and student success, concluding that a strong positive association exists between increased per-pupil spending and improved student outcomes, especially for low-income students and students of color with fewer resources. The prerogative to institute responsible, sustainable and equitable funding formulas that account diligently for the needs of underserved student populations is evident in the Kids Count data for southern states – now, action is necessary.

Policy Recommendations:
The 2019 Kids Count Data Book shows, among other things, that states have a long way to go to provide a quality education, robust economic opportunities and adequate healthcare to children, specifically low-income kids and kids of color. It is unsurprising that in many cases, the states with the most inequitable funding formulas and education policies find themselves at the bottom of the 2019 AECF education rankings. For example, an analysis of Alabama’s education budget shows that the state does not allocate extra funds for low-income students and does not use a base, per-pupil funding formula, while Florida has one of the lowest per-pupil allocations in the country and also fails to provide extra funds for low-income students. Georgia also currently spends very little on each student and has been using the outdated Quality Basic Education (QBE) formula for over 30 years.

Informed by SEF’s policy positions and an analysis of Kids Count data, the following recommendations warrant consideration to catalyze improved outcomes for students across the South.

1) Fund a Community Schools strategy that provides students and families, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, with essential wraparound services that can contribute to increased success in the classroom – For most states, the intrinsic connection among a child’s healthcare, economic well-being, family and community environment, and education is clearly visible in their Kids Count ranking. A critical step to improving educational outcomes for students will be simultaneously expanding access to other essential whole-child services that contribute to students’ performance in school, including mental health services, social and emotional supports, and nutritional services.

2) Implement equitable funding formulas that account for the needs of low-income students, students of color, and other underserved student groups – As demonstrated by Kids Count data and an analysis of southern states’ education funding, investing adequately in education is essential to achieving improved and equitable results. Particularly in a number of southern states including Georgia, low-income students and students of color have not made gains in math and reading, pointing to the necessity for more focused funding and resources for students with greater needs.

3) Fully fund and expand high-quality early childhood and pre-kindergarten programs to promote the development of students’ academic and social skills from a younger age – The likelihood of K-12 success and opportunities for a quality postsecondary education is significantly higher for students with access to early childhood education programs. As one of the quality indicators of a state’s education system in the Kids Count report’s methodology, access to early childhood education is incredibly important in bridging the opportunity gap for low-income students and students of color.

[1] https://datacenter.kidscount.org

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