It's no cliche: There is definitely good news and bad for Utah children in the annual Kids Count report compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for the 24th year. In one criterion, the good news is still bad.
The comprehensive report looks at 16 criteria that make up the quality of life for children in the United States. Overall, Utah is ranked 14th. Results of half the criteria worsened for Utah kids since the previous report, though, including the percentage of children in poverty, children whose parents lack secure employment, children in households with a high housing-cost burden, teens not in school and not working, fourth-graders not proficient in reading, low-birth-weight babies, children in single-parent families and children living in high-poverty areas.
However, even in some areas that grew more grim for Utah children, the Beehive State's statistics were better than the nation as a whole.
The area that should stand out to Utah policymakers is one in which Utah improved but is still far below the national average: children not attending preschool. Here, 60 percent of children are not getting the proven benefits of preschool. That's better than the 62 percent last reported, but worse than the U.S. average of 54 percent.
Early-childhood education is vital if Utah children are to keep up with their peers in this country and around the globe. As the report notes, high-quality pre-kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds have been shown to substantially improve readiness for school and academic success. The group showing the most significant improvement comprises children from at-risk demographic groups, including ethnic and racial minorities and, especially, low-income families.
The report also shows that Utah has a growing percentage of children living in poverty and whose parents lack secure employment. More than middle-class white children, whose parents can afford to send them to private preschool, these kids desperately need an expansion of public preschools. Utah's worsening percentage of fourth-graders proficient in reading just 67 percent is an outgrowth of so many children unprepared for first grade.
Still, legislators continue to balk at providing prekindergarten to, at least, all low-income children. Only pockets of state-funded early-education programs exist now.
Besides the human toll of poor achievement in the early grades, the lack of prekindergarten programs leads directly to a growing dropout rate, and higher costs to the state of adults who are ill-prepared for work or college. The Legislature should make all-day kindergarten and prekindergarten available to all children.