TWIN FALLS — Idaho ranks in the middle of the pack nationwide for child well-being, according to new data.
The 2016 Kids Count data book, released earlier this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows the Gem State ranks 22nd nationwide for how children are faring.
But Idaho has the highest percentage in the nation of young children who aren’t in preschool. It means children may not be prepared for kindergarten and could struggle to catch up.
“In Idaho, we’re missing an opportunity to make investments in early learning that will have long-term benefits to children and communities,” said Lauren Necochea, director of Boise-based nonprofit organization Idaho Voices for Children.
Having access to early childhood education can lead to increased educational success, greater productivity in adulthood and reductions in crime rates, Necochea said, adding funding preschool programs is a “wise investment.”
Across Idaho, 69 percent of 3 and 4-year-olds weren’t in school in 2012-14, according to the report.
Here in south-central Idaho, the percentage of 3 and 4-year-olds enrolled in any type of school ranges from 16 percent in Minidoka County to 41 percent in Blaine County, according to data from Idaho Voices for Children. Twin Falls County comes in at 34 percent.
Idaho is among eight U.S. states without a state-funded preschool program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
But Head Start programs offer preschool for low-income families. Mancole Fedder, director of the College of Southern Idaho’s Head Start/Early Head Start programs, wasn’t available to comment Thursday.
In the Twin Falls School District, 48 percent of kindergartners meet benchmarks on the Idaho Reading Indicator during the first or second week of school.
To meet the benchmark, students are shown letters and must be able to name 11 or more in one minute.
Of the students who weren’t able to do that, 25 percent were labeled under the “intensive” category. It means they weren’t able to identify two letters in a minute.
“We see huge discrepancies in students,” elementary programs director Teresa Jones said.
Some students arrive at kindergarten knowing how to read, while others don’t know their letters. “There’s some really big differences," she said.
Idaho doesn’t require students to attend preschool or kindergarten.
“To me, it would be really nice to have more funding for the lower-age education,” Jones said, whether that’s preschool or full-day kindergarten. “It would help us to have more time with students.”
But as a former kindergarten teacher, Jones said, it’s “pretty amazing” to see children who haven’t been to preschool catch up and get to grade-level expectations by the end of the school year.
The Twin Falls School District offers preschool only for children who have developmental delays.
Overall, Idaho ranks 37th in the nation for education, according to the Kids Count data. That’s based on factors such as young children who aren’t in school, reading and math proficiency, and high school students not graduating on time.
The state’s overall education ranking dropped three sports, Necochea said. “I’m hopeful that our state’s new commitments to literacy interventions and other education initiatives will result in big gains in the coming years.”
Idaho Voices for Children aims to provide a voice for children at the Idaho statehouse. The organization plans to give a copy of the new Kids Count data to state legislators.
With the overall rankings this year, “we haven’t seen big movement,” Necochea said. “There’s nothing here that’s shocking.”
Other conclusions in the Kids Count data: Idaho ranks 14th for economic wellbeing and 30th for child health.
The state’s best ranking is for family and community, coming in 13th. That’s based on having a low percentage of single-parent families, household heads who don’t have a high school diploma, teen pregnancy rates and children living in high-poverty areas.
One problem area, though, is about one-in-five Idaho children are living under the poverty line, Necochea said. “When kids are living in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, it can have negative impacts”
Another concern: It means families may fall into the health care coverage gap, she said, where they can’t qualify for Medicaid or the state’s health insurance exchange.