In its recent release of its annual “Answers Issue,” TIME asserts, “It’s an irony of the second Age of Reason that the abundance of data—the effervescence of sources and ease of delivery—makes so many more questions answerable while at the same time making it very easy to get lost.” And then the magazine’s preface teases answers for everything from the most dangerous U.S. intersection to the safest places to live, as well as revealing where you should be heading this summer if your passion is line dancing or lounging on a beach. Part of me always loves that issue of TIME but the entire premise – here is THE answer – drives another part of me crazy.
Maybe I am just more of a question guy. I rather like Einstein’s assertion that the real challenge we all face is “to raise new questions, new possibilities and to regard old problems from a new angle.” Last week, my colleague Amy Swann artfully summarized what the 2015 KIDS Count Data Book tells us about child well-being in Kentucky. While I know the Data Book puts forward several policy solutions that make a real difference in moving the needle on children, I want to proffer questions this week that made me scratch my head after reviewing the latest report.
Why aren’t we outraged at the achievement data?
The K-12 community and its collaborators in the business and nonprofit world continue to spin educational achievement in way that is a disservice to our children. Right now, Kentucky achievement data touted by these groups is only based on Kentucky comparing itself to Kentucky, instead of comparing ourselves to more strenuous national benchmarks. But when we look at KIDS COUNT data that uses credible and reliable national standards, we see that 63 percent of Kentucky 4th graders and 70 percent of Kentucky’s 8th graders fail to meet national standards of proficiency in reading and math, respectively. That takes my breath away. In what other enterprise would the state’s leaders accept deficiency rates at that scale? So my KIDS COUNT “scratch your head” on this marker is wondering which political or business leader has the guts to step up and ask hard questions about the claims of educational progress? We know local school educators are working hard for kids every day in their classrooms and schools, and we give them the upmost respect for what they do. But until we get real and rigorous about where we stand on education, it’s difficult to promote and implement changes that will truly make an impact.
Why don’t we tackle poverty with small first steps of action rather than grandiose and divisive rhetoric?
Most proposals to tackle poverty presented to us by political, nonprofit, and business leaders are grand in scale and polarizing in politics. We know these large scale reforms will likely go nowhere fast. For the last couple of budget sessions, we have been pushing for small, incremental, and shared steps that can both build momentum for the long term and make a difference for Kentucky’s low-wage families in the immediate. For example, a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit and child and dependent care tax credit would put real money in families’ wallets and in local economies. We could also emulate Ohio and create a streamlined process for Kentuckians in need to access federal benefits of which they are eligible. Or, what about the idea of microenterprise? That is an economic proposition which has made a demonstrable difference for low-income families in rural and urban areas and has growing support from several political and business leaders here and around the world. The truth is, we can—and we must—do something to tackle poverty. Instead of spending energy around the grandiose that is simply not feasible, let’s spend our efforts on the achievable. When over 250,000 Kentucky kids live in poverty, we really can’t afford to do nothing.
How can we all support “family” in 2015?
I think the quietest numbers that perhaps should speak the loudest in all of the KIDS COUNT data revolve around the construct of “family.” A glance at the teen birth rate reveals that, despite its decrease, Kentucky’s continues to be among the highest in the nation. A glance at another data point – children in single parent families – reveals that 337,000 Kentucky youngsters (more than 1 in 3) live with only one parent. Add to those data points other indicators, such as the explosions of kinship care and the increasing use of out-of-home placement, and a major take-away from KIDS COUNT should be that “family” means something very different today than it did a generation ago. And surely no one sees a return to yesterday. The “scratch your head” from that set of data lies in the “so what?” So what does the new family structure mean for the ways in which schools and pediatricians, community centers and centers of faith, and each and every one of us can serve and support families? It’s a conversation that we need to have if we are serious about linking family strength to children’s futures.
I wish I could match the certitude of TIME. I can’t. But I do hope that these three “head-scratchers” can spur us all to meet that Einstein challenge of turning new questions about Kentucky’s kids into new possibilities for Kentucky’s kids.