Despite improvement in 11 of 15 child welfare indicators, Arizona still ranks near the bottom of a national ranking of child health, education and welfare statistics.
The state ranks 46th nationwide in conditions for the well-being of children, according to the 26th annual Kid Count Report compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and released Tuesday.
Child welfare activists Wednesday pointed to the report as evidence of the need for investment in early childhood education programs and a focus on lifting children – and their families – out of poverty.
They also criticized the Arizona Legislature for gradually defunding state welfare programs, a lack of investment in preschool programs and a political culture that fails to focus on communities.
“We tend to have a culture of saying every family for themselves and not a lot of investment in community and what we can do for each other,” said Dana Wolfe Naimark, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Children’s Action Alliance.
Naimark and Kelley Murphy, the organization’s director of early childhood education policy, said the state’s most troubling statistic was the percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool programs.
More than two-thirds of kids in that age group in Arizona don’t attend preschool programs.
While a federal grant aimed at improving the state’s preschool infrastructure is providing funds to dozens of programs to improve quality, train teachers and increase capacity, budget proposals in Congress don’t fund the grant in the coming years.
“We would like to see some state investment in pre-K, at this point there really isn’t any,” Murphy said. “We would like to see them make it a priority to invest in early childhood education.”
The state legislature last year stripped around $4 million in funding for low-income childcare vouchers that had been included in a broader package that created the new child protective services department during a special session.
The childcare vouchers, which provide working parents with funds to send their kids to community-based preschool programs, where an upfront investment with long-term payouts, the child advocates argued. The vouchers are much cheaper, Naimark said, than dealing with the fallout of child neglect cases or poor educational outcomes and was better than parents moving to different welfare programs.
She said the state budget sent a signal to child welfare activists that lawmakers and the governor didn’t prioritize early childhood education and childcare of low-income families.
“The state budget was extremely troubling and took us backwards in so many ways…” Naimark said. “Judging by that I’m extremely concerned about where the priorities might be.”
Statewide 26 percent of children live in poverty. In Mohave County, 30 percent of children 18 and under live in poverty. Those percentages, which are higher than the national average of around 20 percent, make it harder for children to succeed in school and grow up as healthy, productive members of society, according to the report.
And while Arizona has improved some of its reading and math achievement scores over the past 10 years, the state still trails nationwide scores. With 40 percent of its fourth grade students in 2013 “blow basic” reading skills, Arizona underperformed the national average of a decade ago.