Kids Count report on children’s well-being reveals burden of poverty and need for education reforms

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Following the release of Annie E. Casey’s Foundation’s 2014 Kids Count Data Book, much attention has been directed to the fact that Nevada ranked 50th in education for the third year in a row. Given the data cited, we cannot be surprised by the fact that Nevada ranks dead last in education.

First, Nevada has the highest rate of high school students not graduating on time – 40 percent in 2011-12. Nevada’s rate, the highest in the nation, was 17 percentage points higher than any other state, and twice the national average.

Second, at 70 percent, Nevada has the highest rate of children not attending preschool in the entire nation. This data point may not be too surprising given that the state’s support of pre-K programs is fairly limited; of the 41 states that fund pre-K programs, Nevada ranks 33 in state funds per child enrolled in pre-K.  The return on investment seems compelling. Kids who participate in preschool are “32 percent less likely to drop out of high school.”

Finally, as the Guinn Center has discussed, many of Nevada’s students are not proficient in reading and math. Only two states (Mississippi, New Mexico) and Washington, DC have lower fourth grade reading proficiency scores than Nevada (73 percent read below proficiency).

Poverty and Poor Educational Outcomes Nexus

What has attracted less attention and mention is poverty.  As we know, Nevada was hard hit by the Great Recession, resulting in one of the fastest growing child poverty rates in the country.  This bears out in the Kids Count data: Nevada witnessed the biggest increase in the percentage of the population living in poverty, from 11 percent in 2006 to 16 percent in 2012; Nevada also had one of the highest increases in children living in poverty—from 15 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2012, a 60 percent increase. The increase in poverty is critical given the nexus between poor educational outcomes and poverty. Poverty is both a predictor and consequence of a poor quality education.

Many studies have documented the link between poverty and poor educational outcomes. For example, children of parents earning less than $15,000 a year have preschool enrollment rates about 20 percent lower than children of parents earning more than $50,000 a year. Children in poverty also complete less schooling than their wealthier peers.

Using the Kids Count Data, Table 1 below presents information on poverty and educational outcomes.  Interestingly, the five states that ranked last in educational scores are associated with higher rates of child poverty; the five states with the highest educational scores are associated with lower rates of child poverty. In fact, on average, the child poverty rate in states with low educational scores is almost double the child poverty rate in states with high educational scores.

Table 1

State Kids Count Data Education Rank Child Poverty Rate 2012 (%)
Nevada 50 24
New Mexico 49 29
Mississippi 48 35
Louisiana 47 28
West Virginia 46 25
Connecticut 5 15
New Hampshire 4 16
Vermont 3 15
New Jersey 2 15
Massachusetts 1 15


Recommendations to Improve Educational Outcomes

Poverty is both the cause and consequence of poor educational outcomes. Given Nevada’s recent increase in poverty rate, any effort to address poor educational outcomes in the Silver State should address, where possible, the growing poverty in our community.  Educational reforms that take poverty into account will improve the return on investment on education related interventions. Some educational policies that address poverty are presented below.

  • Revise Nevada’s public education funding formula to include more money for students in poverty. In June 2014, Nevada’s Task Force on K-12 Public Education Funding recommended allocating more resources to students in poverty. Specifically, the Task Force recommended a 1.5 weighted ratio within the K-12 funding formula for students eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch. The full Legislature will consider this proposal during the 2015 Legislative Session.
  • Prioritize and support the expansion of high-quality, assessed pre-kindergarten programs. In 2006, Denver launched the Denver Preschool Program, funded by a voter-approved tax increase. This program provides Denver families, regardless of income, tuition support to attend a high-quality preschool program. Since 2006, over 25,000 4-year-olds in Denver, Colorado have benefited from more than $40 million in tuition support. The results are promising: over the period 2005-2012, the percentage of Latino 3 and 4-year olds who were enrolled in preschool rose from 29 percent to 38 percent
  • Implement a state  early literacy program. As recommended in Literacy Challenges in Nevada Schools, this legislation would provide for universal assessments to identify students needing intervention in grades K-3, as opposed to waiting until third grade to begin testing. A number of states have implemented K-3 early literacy programs. In 2002, only 27 percent of Florida’s fourth grade students were proficient in reading. A decade later, after the state implemented a ‘Read by Three’ program, which included yearly assessments and the end of social promotion, 39 percent of fourth grade students were proficient in reading, a 44 percent increase.
  • Launch and/or expand the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) program in Nevada’s high schools. A national program that has demonstrated tremendous success with increasing graduation rates among at-risk students (many of whom are low-income) is the Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) Program, the vice-chair of which is Governor Brian Sandoval. Nationally, JAG has a graduation rate of 93 percent. Nevada implemented the JAG program in 2013, after Nevada’s Legislature and Department of Employment, Training, and Rehabilitation (DETR) directed $750,000 to implement the JAG program in eight schools in three counties (Clark, Washoe, and Lyon). Nevada aims to have the JAG program in 21 schools and eight counties statewide by 2014-2015. 
  • Implement school-based health clinics (SBHC) at low-income schools. Many families in Nevada do not have health insurance. As of 2012, 23 percent of Nevadans were uninsured. Having a full-service health clinic in low-income schools can help close the health-insurance gap. Full service clinics can also provide much needed mental health services. Studies show that school-based health clinics are associated with fewer absences, lower dropout rates, and improved classroom behavior (resulting in fewer disciplinary referrals).

By taking poverty into account, these recommendations take a holistic approach to addressing some of the root causes that prevent students from being successful. Doing so can improve the return on investment on education related interventions.