Georgia Rises, Still in Bottom Third of Kids Count Education Rankings

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By Vanessa McCray, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A new snapshot of how Georgia’s children and families are faring offers sobering statistics sprinkled amid good news.

For the first time in six years, Georgia climbed higher than No. 40 in the nation in a Kids Count ranking of education, economic, health, and family factors reported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Not that Georgia has soared to the top.

The state’s overall rank is No. 39 of 50 states, besting bottom-dwellers West Virginia, Arkansas, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Alaska, Nevada, Mississippi, Louisiana, and — in dead-last place — New Mexico. (New Hampshire nabbed the top spot.)

Experts caution against making year-to-year comparisons because of changing methodology, but Georgia has risen from the first report released more than a quarter-century ago when the state  ranked No. 48 in the country. Last year, Georgia came in at No. 42.

“Our general trajectory has been positive,” said Georgia Kids Count manager Rebecca Rice, of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership. “We are still not where we need to be.”

But causes for concern remain in the data culled from census reports, the U.S. Department of Education, and other sources.

There were 12,704 Georgia babies born in 2016 at a low birth weight, designated as less than 5.5 pounds. That’s 9.8 percent of live births, a slightly higher percentage than in 2010.

Folks are trying to figure out what made that number move in the wrong direction, Rice said.

“It’s telling you that there’s probably something going on with the maternal and child health,” she said. “Healthy moms make healthy babies.”

And there’s not-so-great news when it comes to slightly older children as well. About 135,000 of Georgia’s 3- and 4-year-olds were not enrolled in a nursery school, preschool or kindergarten in 2014-2016. That’s 51 percent of Georgia’s youngsters, another number that crept upward.

The vast majority of brain development happens in a child’s first five years, one reason why quality early childhood education is so important, said Pam Tatum, CEO of the Georgia nonprofit Quality Care for Children.

It’s key that children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten.

“The importance of quality child care is not just about children learning, it’s also about parents working. There’s a strong economic argument for why we should help parents afford quality child care,” she said. “All of these issues are interrelated, so if parents have access to child care they can work; they are less likely to be in poverty.”

Still, Georgia’s highest rank came in the education section of the report, where it ranked No. 34 out of all the states. The state made gains when it comes to the percent of fourth-graders proficient in reading and the number of eighth-graders proficient in math.

Georgia performed the worst in a category called “family and community,” which measures things such as children living in high poverty areas and children living in single-parent families.

The report highlighted other compelling Georgia statistics: 23 percent of the state’s children live in poverty, 8 percent of teens are not in school and not working and 4 percent of teens abuse alcohol or drugs.

Rice wants to see Georgia’s overall rank move out of the bottom 25 percent of states because of what that would signify about the well-being of the state’s children.

“I’m talking about rankings and statistics, but the reason we talk about the rank is because its representative of actual lives of children and families in Georgia.”

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