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Report: Texas Lags on Child Well-Being

Texas ranks among the 10 worst states on a variety of indicators of child well-being, according to a new national analysis out Tuesday.

School children at Arnoldo Cantu Sr. Elementary School in San Juan, Texas, enjoy their free breakfast, April 24, 2013.

Texas ranks among the 10 worst states on a variety of indicators of child well-being, according to a new national analysis out Tuesday.

The annual Kids Count report, released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and led locally by the liberal Center for Public Policy Priorities, the Texas grantee, places Texas 43rd in the country on overall child well-being. The state fares particularly poorly on “family and community” measures like the percentage of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

According to the report, more than a quarter of Texas children are below the federal poverty line, while the majority do not attend preschool. The percent of Texas children whose parents lack secure employment has also risen in recent years. 

There are some bright spots for the state, however. The percentage of high school students not graduating on time dropped from 28 percent in the 2005-06 school year to 18 percent in 2011-12. Teen birth rates and the percentage of children without health insurance have also fallen in recent years, according to the report, which relies on federal and state data.

This year is the report’s 25th anniversary.

Overall, Texas has tracked with the nation as a whole, improving on many education and health indicators while struggling with markers of economic well-being, said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the foundation.

But the country faces two significant challenges, she added: the widening socioeconomic gap between kids from low- and high-income families, and rapidly changing demographics. Children of color make up the majority in Texas, and will outnumber white children in the United States overall by 2018. Yet black, Hispanic and Native American children lag behind whites and Asians on most measures of well-being, Speer said.

Frances Deviney, the Texas Kids Count director and a senior research associate at the CPPP, said that racial disparities, especially in education, have shrunk as socioeconomic gaps expand and segregate communities, both nationally and in Texas.

For Texas’ roughly 7 million children, the researchers are urging a variety of changes — most of them frequent items on Democratic wish lists — including a higher minimum wage, expanded access to health care for the working poor and greater funding for prekindergarten programs.

“The research is pretty clear that the early years are years when a little bit of money can go a very long way, and so investment in high-quality early education … is more important now than ever,” Speer said.

But some conservative researchers disagree, saying the solution is not to fund current programs better but to disrupt the status quo with more school choice and online learning. Though Chuck DeVore, vice president of policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, had not yet seen the Kids Count report, he said long-term studies have shown that the benefits of prekindergarten are largely wiped out by third or fourth grade. "Ask yourself: Why are they advocating these programs?" he asked. "Is this really cover for state-financed daycare?”

The national data shows a stark geographic divide on where it’s best to grow up: An uninterrupted strip of the southernmost continental states, from California to South Carolina, is the lowest-ranked on child well-being. Massachusetts leads the nation, while Mississippi brings up the rear.

In education, the percentage of Texas eighth-graders not proficient in math dropped from 69 percent in 2005 to 62 percent in 2013. The fourth-grade reading proficiency rate worsened by 1 percentage point over the same timeframe — no big change, but a trend that Speer called particularly worrisome because the nation overall improved on that measure.

Deviney drew a comparison between child well-being and the much-touted "Texas miracle," with its emphasis on job growth and a business-friendly regulatory climate. “If we put the same kind of attention on kids and making sure we had the best kids in the country, the way we want to have the best business climate in the country, imagine what we could do for our kids,” she said. “It’s really an attitude that we have to have in Texas that we don’t have right now.”

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