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Tennessee improves in child well-being

Sue Guinn Legg • Jun 18, 2017 at 5:08 PM

With last week’s with release of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2017 Kids Count report, Tennessee hit a new high in the foundation’s annual rankings of the overall well-being of the state’s children, moving up three spots to 35th in the nation.

In an initial review of the report, officials with the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth were encouraged and commended state programs contributing to the progress but also emphasized the need for further improvement.

An annual measurement of child well-being in four key categories, this year’s Kids Count data showed Tennessee’s children rising seven spots over last year to 35thin economic well-being, up three spots to 33rd in education, up two positions to 26th in health, and down one position to 40th in family and community.

The report also includes a five-year data comparison in which Tennessee consistently placed in the lower half of the national rankings in education and economic well-being and only this year in the 50th percentile in health.

Looking at the five-year results, Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth Executive Director Linda O’Neal noted substantial progress made during Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration in economic development, business recruitment and education, and specifically credited Tennessee Promise free tuition program and the Drive to 55 initiative for advances in Kids Count data on education.

But the TCCY director also pointed to areas of need highlighted by the report.

While this year’s health ranking was improved over last year, O’Neal cited the prior five-year decline in rankings for children without health insurance that could threaten that improvement.

“During the 1990s, the state was on the forefront of health reform with the creation of the TennCare program. However, as other states have expanded coverage to their neediest working families, between 2010 and 2015 Tennessee dropped in ranking from ninth to 16th for children without health insurance,” she said.

“Uncertainty about the future of health care coverage threatens the improvements the state has made in reducing the number of children who do not have health insurance. Tennessee’s failure to extend coverage to parents by leveraging federal Medicaid expansion funds still leaves 62,000 children without health care coverage.”

O’Neal likewise balanced the state’s gains in education against a need for improvement in education, noting that while the Kids County data shows Tennessee children improved in math and reading proficiency between 2010 and 2015, it also shows 61 percent of children ages 3 and 4 did not attend school between 2013 and 2015.

“We commend the state’s commitment to improving the quality of its pre-K programs. Efforts are also needed to expand quality pre-K so more children have opportunities to develop critical social, emotional and cognitive skills during the early years,” she said.

TCCY Northeast Regional Coordinator Jill Grayson Stott sees reason to be encouraged.

“It’s the highest overall we’ve ever been in the rankings, a significant jump,” she said. “There are a lot of programs that have been put in place that are going to take us even higher.

“There’s improvement. I think that’s the most encouraging thing. We’ve made progress,” Stott said.

Compiled annually to give officeholders and child advocates data to help shape policies that benefit children and families, the national Kids Count report correlates with the annual “Kids Count: State of the Tennessee Child” report prepared annually by the TCCY.

Released in January, the 2016 TCCY Kids Count Tennessee report showed Washington County third among Tennessee’s 95 counties in overall child well-being, second in the state in TCAP reading, and in the top 20 in percent of children living in poverty and children without health insurance.

In overall child well being, the TCCY report ranked Sullivan County 23rd in the state, Carter County 29th, Unicoi County 32nd and Johnson County 65th.

County-by-county percentages included in this year’s national Kids Count include:

Participation in Free and Reduced Price School Meals

• Tennessee, 48.9 percent.

• Washington County, 34.3 percent.

• Sullivan County, 38.4 percent.

• Carter County, 54.8 percent.

• Unicoi County, 45.7 percent.

• Johnson County, 72.1 percent.

Children in Poverty

• Tennessee, 24,1 percent.

• Washington County, 22.1 percent.

• Sullivan County, 24.6 percent.

• Carter County, 33.1 percent.

• Unicoi County, 27.5 percent.

• Johnson County, 34.9 percent.

High School Dropouts

• Tennessee, 5.6 percent.

• Washington County, 5.6 percent.

• Sullivan County, 4.8 percent.

• Carter County, 4.8 percent.

• Unicoi County, 5.3 percent.

• Johnson County, 3.9 percent.

Children with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

• Tennessee, 1,068.

• Washington County, 75.

• Sullivan County, 78.

• Carter County 41.

• Unicoi County 12.

• Johnson County, 6.

Uninsured Children

• Tennessee, 4.2 percent.

• Washington County, 4.0 percent.

• Sullivan County, 3.3.

Carter County 3.4 percent.

Unicoi County 4.8 percent.

Johnson County, 4.4 percent.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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