SALT LAKE CITY — Utah ranks third in child well-being, according to the 2024 KIDS COUNT Data Book, a 50-state report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzing post-pandemic conditions for children. Despite the high ranking, the report indicates Utah slipped one spot from last year’s study and illustrates a need for greater support in education to ensure future success for Utah’s children and the state’s economy.

Now in its 35th year, the KIDS COUNT Data Book highlights significant deficits in essential reading and math skills, a longstanding issue exacerbated by pandemic-related learning loss. From 2019 to 2022, unprecedented declines erased decades of progress, with chronic absenteeism notably high, particularly among children living in poverty.

The Data Book evaluates states on child well-being using 16 indicators across four sectors: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors.

Martín C. Muñoz, KIDS COUNT Director at Voices for Utah Children, says that even though Utah is doing well overall, there are certain pockets of concern. In 2022, 63% of Utah’s fourth graders were not proficient in reading, up from 60% in 2019. Similarly, 65% of eighth graders were not proficient in math, an increase from 63% in 2019.

Another significant concern throughout the state is chronic absenteeism, meaning students missing 10 or more days without permission.

“It has an affect on a kid’s outcome in school, that pre-K education opportunity,” Muñoz explains, “not just education but also for their social, emotional learning, learning how to interact with other individuals, learning real basics.

“If we were to increase those numbers I think we could see the benefits down the road when those children are in the 4th and 8th grades on these other markers.”

Muñoz says his organization and others have been working for years to determine why certain minority groups suffer chronic absenteeism at higher rates.

“We’re looking at our communities of Pacific Islanders averaging around 52%, our Native American and Alaskan Native students in the high 40% and our Latino students in the high 30%.”

In the just-concluded school year, Cache County experienced 21.7% chronic absenteeism. Box Elder County saw much higher numbers, at 32%. Students in Cache County needing free and reduced lunches stood at 29.3% while it was at 31.5% in Box Elder County.

“Almost a third of those students in both counties,” Muñoz said, “are facing economic challenges and qualify for free or reduced lunch.”

Voices for Utah Children wants to do more to reach out to these minority populations in the hope of determining why their children are missing so much school.

“The most valuable tool we can give any kid in their toolbox of life is a high quality, strong education,” Muñoz adds.

The Casey Foundation report suggests the pandemic is not the sole cause of declining test scores. Educators, researchers, policymakers, and employers have long warned about insufficient academic readiness among U.S. students. National scores in reading and math have stagnated for decades.

Compared to peer nations, the United States falls short in equipping children with high-level reading, math, and digital problem-solving skills essential for many of today’s fastest-growing jobs. This gap threatens the nation’s economy, with up to $31 trillion in economic activity at risk if young people do not overcome pandemic-induced learning loss. One analysis estimates the drop in math scores from 2019 to 2022 could reduce lifetime earnings by 1.6% for 48 million students, totaling $900 billion in lost income.

Muñoz believes the best way to help students achieve better test scores and remain in school is to borrow from a popular economic theory from the 1980s.

“The trickle down effect. When we help families, that trickles down to the kids. That trickle down works. I believe that’s one thing we need to look at, putting families as a priority. We’re a family-friendly state. Let’s start really walking the walk.”

He says the way to do that is making sure students have access to lunch everyday, and not holding their education ransom if a family is late on lunch fees. Muñoz believes parents should have more opportunities and more resources for their children. 

Utah should take every opportunity it can to fund education to its full amount, Muñoz adds, and to take care of its educators while making sure they have the resources they need to provide a quality education.

The reports suggests that states have delayed spending their share of $190 billion in federal pandemic funding (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER) intended to boost achievement. The deadline to allocate this funding is September 30, 2024. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Utah was awarded nearly a billion dollars and has spent 77.5% of these funds, leaving around $20 million to be used by September.

For more information, visit the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s website.

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