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Pennsylvania improves a little in caring for kids

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A pair of new reports scheduled for release today further amplify the link between poverty and lowered outcomes for children living in the midst of it.

One of the reports, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation called Kids Count, ranked Pennsylvania 13th among all states in 10 indicators relating to overall child well-being, up from 16th in 1990. Minnesota ranked first and Mississippi last.

The study showed Pennsylvania improved more than the national rate in such categories as slowing its infant mortality rate, lowering the percentage of high school dropouts and increasing the number of families with full-time, year-round employment.

But in poverty, low birth weights and teen parents -- areas identified by the National Academy of Sciences as critical to school readiness -- the state made just incremental progress or regressed, according to national standards.

For example, the rate of births to teen-agers ages 15-17 in the state was 29 percent better in 2000 than a decade earlier, from 28 births per thousand girls to 20 births. Nationally, births to teen-agers improved by 27 percent, down from 37 births per 1,000 girls in 1990 to 27 in 2000.

But the number of babies born weighing less than 5.5 pounds increased by 8 percent, from 7.1 percent in 1990 to 7.7 percent in 2000.

"Kids in our state are sort of stuck," said Joan Benso, executive director and chief executive officer of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, a statewide advocacy organization for the health, well-being and education of children.

"We are not a state that has made a dramatic change to improve the lives of kids in the state."

Though the research itself is not groundbreaking, its release comes just weeks before the Pennsylvania Legislature decides on Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed $1.5 billion education improvement plan, which seeks universal pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten among many other programs.

Benso, who has lobbied for passage of Rendell's educational reforms, cited numerous studies that showed children who participated in early childhood education programs, especially those from struggling families, made better grades, had better high school graduation rates, had fewer problems with the law and went on to earn more money as adults.

The Casey study says at least 400,000 children in Pennsylvania live in circumstances that diminish their potential to learn.

Pennsylvania is one of nine states that does not invest in pre-kindergarten. Nationwide, about 55 percent of all kindergartners attend full-day classes, compared to 31 percent in Pennsylvania.

The second study, by Child Trends, said that children from working poor families are more likely to have been suspended or expelled from school, and are more likely to repeat a grade than children from modest-, middle- or upper-income families.

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.

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