By Vicki Smith
West Virginia’s educational system ranks fourth worst in the nation for the second straight year, and child-welfare advocates say lack of quality pre-kindergarten programs for 3-year-olds is partly to blame.
The annual KIDS COUNT report released Monday says nearly two-thirds of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds weren’t enrolled in preschool programs in 2011.
It also says that 73 percent of fourth-graders weren’t proficient in reading, while 79 percent of eighth-graders weren’t proficient in math. And 22 percent of students didn’t graduate from high school on time in the 2009-10 school year.
All of those measures are up slightly from the previous report, but KIDS COUNT still ranks West Virginia 47th overall in education. Joining it in the bottom five are Arizona, Mississippi, New Mexico and Nevada.
West Virginia does fare better in children’s health this year, moving up from 31st place to 27th. Fewer babies were born underweight, fewer children lacked health insurance and fewer teens abused drugs and alcohol during the latest survey period.
But the chronic problem of teenage pregnancy continued to grow.
The teen birth rate jumped from 43 per 1,000 teens to 45 per 1,000 teens — putting West Virginia 43rd among the 50 states. At the same time, the national teen birth rate fell 15 percent to a historic low.
The report also explores the economic well-being of West Virginia children and finds it largely unchanged.
Since 2005, 26 percent of the state’s children have lived in poverty. But the number of teenagers who are neither working nor in school rose slightly to 11 percent in 2011, and the number of children whose parents lack secure employment rose from 32 percent to 35 percent.
The number of children living in single-parent homes jumped significantly to 36 percent in 2011.
Margie Hale, executive director of West Virginia KIDS COUNT, says the state has made progress on children’s health by focusing on policies that improve families’ access to insurance and prenatal care.
Now, she said, it must focus on education.
“We have already made some important strides with our universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds,” she said. “But research tells us to get the full benefit of preschool education, we also must improve the quality and expand the capacity of programs that serve 3-year-olds.”
Last month, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced the creation of the Early Childhood Planning Task Force as part of an education reform package aimed at raising student achievement. One key mission is to examine services that prepare children under 5 for school and recommend new services to better achieve that goal.
A report, including recommendations for funding priority services, is due by year’s end.
Officials with the state Department of Education didn’t immediately comment on the report.