More Illinois children living in poverty, at risk of school failure

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Illinois children have been dealt a heavy blow during the Great 
Recession in terms of reduced state support for their education and 
health needs and their general well-being, according to the group 
Voices for Illinois Children.

Illinois children have been dealt a heavy blow during the Great Recession in terms of reduced state support for their education and health needs and their general well-being, according to the group Voices for Illinois Children.

The rate of children living in poverty –defined under federal standards as $21,750 per year for a family of four – rose to 19% in 2008, the highest level since 1993, and is expected to exceed 20% when data for 2010 are available, according to Executive Director Kathy Ryg, who spoke at a Thursday news conference to release the 2011 edition of “Illinois Kids Count.”

“We will see that more than one Illinois child in five is living in poverty,” said Ryg, adding that poverty is a powerful indicator of shortcomings of many kinds, particularly in education, where she said public schools are seeing a dramatic increase in children from low-income families.

More than 45% of all Illinois public schoolchildren are from low-income families (incomes no greater than twice the poverty level), she said. In urban school districts – including East St. Louis, Peoria, Rockford and Waukegan – the rate has soared to over 70%. The poverty rate for Chicago schools is 85%.

Child poverty is among the indicators reported in “Illinois Kids Count,” an annual analysis of children’s well-being published by Voices, the state’s most influential child advocacy group. The complete report, based on the theme of “Great at Eight,” is available at the Voices web site.

The 2011 report “focuses on the multiple factors that affect school success and the cognitive, social-emotional and physical development of young children,” Ryg told reporters at the Capitol in Springfield.

She stressed that, as state legislators decide school policy issues this spring, they “must address” such issues as the low rate of reading improvement and the vast disparities between poor students and middle-income students in academic achievement.

For example, the Voices document cites results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress: In 2009, 4th grade reading scores were at or above the “basic” level for only 47% of students in poverty, but about 80% for other students.

Among the 10 largest states, Illinois had the second-widest achievement gap between students in poverty and other students.

In the 2010 Illinois Standards Achievement Test, only 60% of low-income 8th grade students met state standards, while 88% of other students did so.

Voices says the state must support the educational needs of children from less affluent families, especially in early childhood and preschool programs. In recent years, the state made headlines with its Preschool for All initiative, but the program has fallen far short of its initial goal of reaching all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state. 

Funding for early childhood education peaked at $380 million per year in Fiscal Year 2009, but was cut by $38 million the following year and remains at that reduced level this fiscal year. Those cuts reduced the number of participating toddlers by 5,000 in FY 2010 and by another 2,600 this year, according to Sean Noble, a policy analyst for Voices.

Although the Early Childhood Block Grant program was designed to benefit every pre-school child in the state, funding has never allowed it even to reach all children considered “at risk” of educational failure (defined largely by poverty, but also by other factors), Noble said.

Gov. Pat Quinn proposed in his budget message to the General Assembly this week that Early Childhood Block Grant funding be restored to its FY 2009 level. But because of competing priorities in the FY 2012 state budget, pressure to divert funds elsewhere will be intense.

The state budget for FY 2012 will not be finalized before about May 31, the deadline for the General Assembly to adjourn without more stringent vote requirements to pass a bill.

Ryg observed that state government will remain under severe fiscal stress for years to come, and that the need for state services illustrated by the plight of families in need will continue as well. “Every adult needs to be an advocate for every child,” she said.

She cited research by Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman, who linked support for early learning to dramatic reductions in social costs related to lost income potential, poor health, incarceration and increased use of public services in general.

“I’ve seen the effects of when education fails,” said Morgan County Sheriff Randy Duvendack, who also participated at Thursday’s news conference. Youth who do not achieve in school are the ones who most often get involved in anti-social and criminal activities, he said.

“We keep building prisons … we keep putting them in jail,” he said