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Kids Count shows Az's preferred obsolete model
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Kids Count shows Az's preferred obsolete model

I always like to say Arizona is the 48th state, but not because we were the 48th state to join the Union (and yes, despite “states rights” political rhetoric to the contrary, we officially are still part of the United States).

I like to say Arizona is the 48th state because it seems that’s about where we usually land when compared to the 49 other states on key measurements such as educational achievement, per pupil funding or children well-being.

Thank God for Mississippi, the perennial 49th state.

I jest that the only reason we consistently beat out Mississippi on such rankings is because, unlike Mississippi, most kids in Arizona can spell “Mississippi.”

But under the latest Kids Count Data Book report, Arizona voyaged beyond “48” and recorded a 49 – as in “49 percent of children in Arizona live in low-income families.”

That’s right, about half of Arizona kids – or 789,443 children – lived below 200 percent of the federal poverty level in 2012, a 5 percent increase since 1999. As with many quality-of-life measures, Arizona is headed in the wrong direction.

Twelve of Arizona’s 15 counties had more than half of their children living in low-income families, according to the report. That fact, while alarming, should not come as a surprise to anyone. Kids Count has been coming out for 25 years, and Arizona children have not fared well in the annual report because, well, as a whole Arizona children have not fared well in reality.

It’s not like we leave our kids locked in the hot car while we run into the casino for a pack of smokes and “a couple games” of blackjack. But as a state, we have not ensured our kids have the very best chance for individual and collective success either. In fact, we have built a model to produce exactly what we get. We cannot expect a different result without building a different model and nowhere on any drawing boards are there blueprints to build a better model.

Under our model, we start in preschool – or rather, we don’t start in preschool, with just 34 percent of Arizona 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool in 2012. That’s down from 40 percent in 2000. Nationally, 46 percent of children enrolled in preschool, and it’s hovered at that level for years.

Our 49th ranking for preschool is not good for a state previously content to live off its many 48th laurels. But the impact goes beyond simple numbers. Too many of our kids show up for kindergarten not knowing letters or colors either. Educators and experts will tell you, once a child falls behind it’s difficult (and in some cases nearly impossible) for them to catch up in the K-12 pipeline.

We continue to grow the problem through grade school and high school, with institutional low expectations (especially of the poor and children of color) matched only by institutional low funding (especially for the poor and children of color).

Statewide, 77 percent of Arizonans graduate from high school in four years, which is a slight improvement but still on the unacceptable scale. For Arizona Latinos, the graduation rate is 70 percent, 65 percent for American Indians and 71 percent for Blacks.

A new report by the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable showed the collective impact of Arizona’s dropouts: More than 18,000 Arizona students dropped out of high school this year, meaning there will be $7.6 billion less in economic activity over their lifetimes than if they had graduated.

Indeed, as the Morrison Institute for Public Policy 2012 report, Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona’s Economic Future, points out, the combined average income for Latinos and Whites in Arizona will drop to $32,423 (in 2010 dollars), down from its comparable combed average of $39,667 unless the Latino dropout rate and education gap are closed.

By the way, the common denominator in Arizona’s educational achievement gap is poverty, not ethnicity. A poor White kid living in a poor Latino neighborhood will experience the same obstacles in education as his or her neighbor. It’s just that a disproportionate number of Latinos (a large and growing demographic) are poor, and thereby suffer the cyclical consequences of a school system that favors the wealthy.

According to the Kids Count report, 24 percent of Arizona children live in poverty, which amounts to $14,937 for a family of two; $18,284 for a family of three; and $23,492 for a family of four in 2012.

Contextual point: Earning $5 or $10 above those annual amounts does not somehow make you rich, well-off, semi-wealthy, financially comfortable or middle class. It simply means you’re struggling and your children will struggle. Some will make it out of poverty, but most won’t – not without a different model.

As a board member of the Arizona Children’s Action Alliance, I feel I must note that not everything in the report was negative. There were some encouraging points in the Arizona Kids Count Data Book, including:  

  • The rate of juveniles arrested for violent crimes dropped by almost half from 2000 to 2013.
  • The percentage of births to mothers without a high school education fell to 19 percent in 2012, compared to 30 percent in 2000.
  • In terms of overall conditions for children, Arizona improved one slot in 2014, to 46th in the nation.

There you have it: No. 46 …

Well, at least we didn’t drop down to 48th (which has been held by Nevada the last three years) or to 49th  (New Mexico, which was admitted to the Union as the 47th state just about a month before Arizona in 1912, carries that distinction this year).

We are 46th in overall conditions for children, but we might not want to get too cocky; we were No. 46 in 2012 before slipping to No. 47 in 2013 and returning to No. 46 in 2014.

No, we’re not the worst. Guess who’s ranked No. 50 in overall conditions for children. Really, do I have to spell it out for you?

OK, here goes: M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.

S-U-C-C-E-S-S appears to be a much tougher word for Arizona to spell.

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

The director of communications for the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at ASU, Garcia is a longtime, award-winning journalist whose experience as a top editor, columnist and reporter included positions at The Arizona Republic, The Daily Times, Tucson Citizen, USA Today and The Associated Press.

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