By Rhonda Holman
July 31, 2014

The always thought-provoking Kids Count Data Book counts even more in this election year, considering Gov. Sam Brownback’s stated 2010 campaign goals of reducing child poverty and improving fourth-graders’ reading. Kansas’ mixed results overall show the recession’s effects and leave a lot of work to do.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s latest Kids Count report, relying mostly on 2012 statistics, found Kansas a respectable 15th overall among the states, one spot better than last year’s report. Kansas ranked a strong seventh for economic well-being, with 24 percent of children’s parents lacking secure employment (25 percent in 2011) and 27 percent of kids in households with a high housing cost burden (30 percent in 2011).

Kansas was 12th among states for education, with 54 percent of tots not attending preschool (the same since 2009) and 11 percent of high school students not graduating on time (13 percent in 2010-11).

Kansas came in 21st for children’s health and 25th for family and community, showing slight recent improvement in low-birthweight babies (a 7.1 percent rate) and teens abusing alcohol or drugs (6 percent), and slightly more children living in high-poverty areas (8 percent).

Kansas’ numbers compared unfavorably with the nation’s in child and teen deaths, which were 33 per 100,000 in Kansas and 26 nationally, and in teen births, which were 34 per 1,000 in Kansas and 29 nationally – a historic low.

As for the governor’s goals: Using National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, Kids Count reported that 62 percent of Kansas fourth-graders were not proficient in reading in 2013, down from 64 percent in 2011 and 65 percent in 2009. And Brownback’s claim that poverty has “been flat” during his term is consistent with the American Community Survey data used by Kids Count. It shows child poverty in Kansas at 15 percent in 2008, 18 percent in 2009 and 2010, and 19 percent in 2011 and 2012. (Using a different survey that includes 18-year-olds, the advocacy group Kansas Action for Children tracked child poverty as having risen from 19.4 percent in 2010 to 23.1 percent in 2012.)

So the governor can say credibly that fourth-graders’ reading has improved slightly and child poverty at least hasn’t worsened on his watch, though it is still considerably higher than prerecession levels.

Of course, as state income taxes continue to go down according to Brownback’s plan, and revenue collections with them, kids and especially poor children will be at increasing risk. “Public investments matter if we’re serious about lifting children out of poverty,” said Kansas Action for Children chief executive Shannon Cotsoradis, in a statement about the Kids Count report.

With one election Tuesday and another in November, a top issue for candidates and voters should be how the state can do better by its children.

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