While West Virginia’s universal preschool program has been nationally recognized, a report being released today ranks the state’s program among the worst in the country because it provides access only to 4-year-olds.
The state currently offers free preschool to all 4-year-olds, with enrollment reaching more than 15,000 children last school year, and just last month, the National Institute for Early Education Research ranked West Virginia among the top 10 states in the country for pre-K enrollment.
But state law does not provide the same services to 3-year-olds unless they have an Individualized Education Program, typically designated for children with special needs.
Because of that, the Kids Count Data Center report ranked the state 47th in preschool access.
The annual report ranked West Virginia 37th in the U.S. for the overall well-being of children, with its worst marks aimed at the public school system. The state’s eighth-grade math proficiency is also ranked among the lowest in the country.
“We have a lot of children in West Virginia who don’t have rich environments,” said Margie Hale, executive director of West Virginia Kids Count. “Not that they’re bad, but they’re not rich. They’re not filled with words and stories and reading, and those are the things that happen when you’ve got an early childhood program. Education is the worst indicator, and it’s the one that could turn us around.
“We all know that the most profitable investment we can make is in early childhood programs,” she said. “We know that making this investment in young children is the answer. It’s just so clear from the data and research.”
A spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Education on Monday pointed to Head Start, an early education program for low-income families, as another option for the state’s 3-year-olds.
About 2,300 3-year-olds were enrolled in Head Start in West Virginia last year, according to Kids Count data.
The Kids Count report measures indicators such as education, economic well-being, health and family and community.
Since Kids Count launched its annual report 25 years ago, West Virginia has improved in 13 of 16 indicators for child well-being, and gotten worse in three, including the number of children living in a single-parent household.
More than 1 in 3 children in West Virginia live in single-parent households — a 75 percent increase since 1990.
Also, West Virginia is ranked 45th in the U.S. for its high teen birth rate.
The state has seen major gains over the years in the number of children who are covered by health insurance, according to the report. Only about 4 percent of the state’s children are currently uninsured, thanks in part to the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
The state’s best ranking is for its low number of teens under the age of 17 who abuse alcohol and drugs — second best in the country.
The state ranks 28th for economic well-being, 33rd for family and community and 35th for health.
Nationally, states such as Massachusetts, Vermont and Iowa were ranked among the highest by Kids Count, while Mississippi, Louisiana and Arizona were among the lowest in the country.
Another positive change, according to the report, is that more parents of children in West Virginia have obtained high school diplomas than in previous years.
The full report can be viewed at www.wvkidscount.org.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-4814 or follow @mackenziemays on Twitter.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of West Virginia 3-year-olds in Head Start.