The future of Washington — or any state, for that matter — often can be presaged by the condition of its children. There is no shortage of clich?s such as “The children are our future” or “It takes a village to raise a child” that suggest the importance of coming generations.
Therefore, some lessons can be learned from the annual Kids Count Data Book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. As with studies from any advocacy group, specifics can be quibbled with. But the organization’s yearly ranking of states based upon how well their children are faring offers some broad and instructive insight.
Washington stands 14th overall in child well-being, based upon categories such as economic security, education, health, and family and community. This is better than, say, Mississippi, which is 50th overall with rankings of 50th, 48th, 48th, and 50th in the individual categories. Most notably, Washington falls below average in education, where it ranks 28th.
The Kids Count study highlights the need for the Legislature to fix the state’s school-funding conundrum — as if lawmakers needed further incentive. Rather than play politics while using schoolchildren as pawns — as they have embarrassingly done for far too long — lawmakers must recognize that their eventual solutions will resonate well into the future.
According to the Kids Count assessment, which used data from 2015, 60 percent of Washington fourth-graders were not reading at grade level, and about 40 percent of eighth-graders were not reaching grade-level achievement in math. In addition, an inordinate percentage of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds were not in preschool, but that issue has been addressed by the Legislature in recent years, and dividends will be seen in the near future.
Continuing support for early education will give students a strong foundation for their academic careers. But that is only a start. Lawmakers must bolster education from preschool through higher ed — meaning technical schools as well as the traditional four-year programs. Education funding should be seen as an investment in the future of the state and not as an opportunity for political posturing.
Washington also ranks fairly low in terms of economic well-being for children, coming in 24th despite a booming economy. This is largely due to the state’s regressive tax system, which places the burden upon low-income families at a level not seen in most states. Washington’s lack of income tax and heavy reliance upon sales tax trickles down upon youth from poor and working-class families.
In terms of family structure and community environment, Washington ranks 17th. As far as health, the state ranks fifth, demonstrating the benefits of its enthusiastic embrace of the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid — an expansion that is being threatened by health care bills in Congress.
One benefit of the Kids Count analysis is that it culls copious amounts of data and distills it. And a quick look through the information reinforces the vast divide between urban populations and those in rural areas. Densely populated counties are providing a more nurturing environment for children, while rural counties are struggling to provide their kids with the basics of a healthy childhood.
As mentioned, data can be quibbled with. But two areas stand out as necessary for a robust Washington of the future: Adequately providing strong education at all levels, and closing the divide between urban and rural communities. These will be essential to the children of Washington and, as we know, the children are our future.