More than nine out of 10 West Virginia children aren't receiving the early childhood education that would help them excel later in life, according to a report released by one of the state's largest child-advocacy organizations.
According to the 2013 data released by West Virginia KIDS COUNT, 93 percent of children under 6 are receiving unknown or minimum-quality child care, and only one in five of those children is enrolled in preschool. West Virginia ranks 45th in the nation for the number of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, despite ample evidence to suggest early education has high returns for kids down the road, according to Margie Hale, executive director of KIDS COUNT.
"Every child born in West Virginia deserves the best possible start in life," Hale said. "There are very real risk factors associated with a lack of early education opportunities — dropping out of school, not being able to read proficiently, getting in trouble with the law, getting pregnant too early in life — they're all risk factors for kids who don't have an enriching early experience."
Only 1,680 of the 68,600 West Virginia children under 6 who need child care are enrolled in nationally accredited child-care programs. There are between 20 and 30 such programs in the state, said Suzi Brodof, executive director of River Valley Child Development Services, but the accreditation means a better staff-child ratio, more training and a wider array of services that can promote development in young children during a critical age.
"There has been a lot of research in the last decade that has shown that a huge amount of learning takes place from birth to the age of 3," Brodof said.
In 2005, the Marshall University Center for Business and Economic Research found that every $1 invested in high-quality child care resulted in $5.20 in social and economic returns for West Virginia. Better staff-to-child ratios and higher levels of training, as well as accreditation fees, can make improving a child-care facility expensive, Brodof said, but there are incentive programs at the state level to help agencies.
"The thing about child care is that it's not cheap," Brodof said. "For example, there should ideally be one adult for every four children in a facility. There is a cost associated with providing quality."
Julie Pratt, project director for the West Virginia Early Childhood Planning Task Force, said KIDS COUNT was instrumental in getting the Childcare Quality Rating and Improvement System approved by the state Legislature in 2009. Despite its passage, though, the bill was never funded, and West Virginia is one of six states without a quality rating system for its day-care facilities.
"What I hear from everyone who has children is how expensive child care is, so expanding income eligibility should be a priority," Pratt said. "Part of the problem also has to do with the number of children in unknown care — that isn't to say that unregulated care is bad care, but it's just that we don't know what they're getting in those settings."
According to Hale, in order to bridge the gap for early childhood care in the state, more support programs must be available to parents, more low-income children must be granted access to high-quality child-care programs, and the state must develop comprehensive, integrated programs that address all aspects of early child development.
"The brain is developing more rapidly in the first three years of life than it ever will again," Pratt said. "It's legitimately setting the stage for all subsequent learning, so if we don't do a good job in those first few years, and if children aren't supported during that time, it's really easy for them to fall through the cracks."
Monongalia County was found to have the best overall well-being among West Virginia's 55 counties, and McDowell County was ranked the lowest. Kanawha County ranked 28th and Putnam County was ranked third. A few of the report's indicators included the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-kindergarten, the teen birth rate, the percentage of high school dropouts and the child poverty rate for each county.
County-specific data and links to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's interactive "Data Center" are available on the KIDS COUNT website, www.wvkidscount.org.
Reach Lydia Nuzum at email@example.com or 304-348-5189.