A closer look at the “Kids Count” numbers

by Rob Roper

Last Wednesday, Governor Shumlin held a press conference to tout Vermont’s #3 score in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count” census. While being number 3 is certainly better than being number 50, a deeper look at the numbers leaves one wondering if our kids’ status is really more akin to being first class passengers on the Titanic.

First of all, according to this survey, the number of Vermont kids living in poverty increased from 17,000 to 21,000 between 2006 and 2010, the sharpest increase in New England. Over the same period of time the number of kids living in households that are considered “food insecure” climbed from 16% to 21%. So, we’re celebrating with a press conference the fact that our state policies have made our kids poorer and hungrier over the past half-decade. This doesn’t seem like something to cheer about under any circumstances.

In addition, the number of kids living in households where no parent has a full-time, year round job rose from 36,000 to 41,000 (31%), and 38,000 Vermont kids live in single parent families (30%). We didn’t do well by our kids economically, but, what’s even more curious about this report are the places where Vermont supposedly shined: education and health.

The study looks at fourth grade reading and eighth grade math scores, in which Vermont students scored “Below Proficient” 59% and 54% of the time respectively in 2011. This was an improvement over 2002’s 61% and 69%, but still…. Can’t we and shouldn’t we be doing a whole lot better than this? Particularly when you consider that we spend over $15,000 per student/per year in our public schools?

On the health front, 41% of our students were reported as sexually active in 2011, up steadily from 35% in 2003 (they did not provide an age range for this stat). 35% of Vermont kids were using alcohol and 24% were smoking pot in 2011 (fairly steady over time), though just 13% were smoking tobacco, down from 20% five years earlier. However, a different study from 2011 done by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services branded Vermont as the number one state for alcohol abuse by kids aged 12-20, and we were number two for marijuana abuse.  If Vermont improved on this score, it’s because we had nowhere to come but down (no pun intended).

On the bright side, only 19% of Vermont’s students reported being depressed in 2011, down from 22% in 2002. One can only assume they haven’t seen the rest of the results from the Kids Count scorecard.

Our politicians might want to use this study as an opportunity to cheerlead for their policies, but it really ought to be a red flag. If a state that’s turning out more poor and hungry kids, who can’t read or calculate proficiently, and are frequently bombed on one mind altering chemicle or another represents the best (or top 3) the United States has to offer, we’re in a lot of trouble. And, we have a lot of work to do. Our kids really do deserve a lot better than this.