Parents bring their children for the first day of classes at Grant Wood Elementary School in Bettendorf last year. A national study found Iowa ranks third in the nation for kids' wellness, including education, economics, health and community and family. But racial disparities remain a stubborn problem.

The latest Kids Count Data Book ranked Iowa as the third best state, overall, for children, based on various data points and benchmarks across economics, education, health and community from 2017.

Since the first Kids Count report in 1990, there are 10 million more kids in America, but only 12,581 are in Iowa, a 2% increase over 27 years. In addition to the overall rankings, there are rankings based individual data points, and Iowa cracked the top 10 for the four major categories: Iowa was ranked second for economic well-being, seventh for education, and eighth in both health and family and community.

Mike Crawford, the Iowa Kids Count director and senior associate and fiscal director of the Child and Family Policy Center of Iowa, said that even more important than the rankings, though, was tracking Iowa’s progress from year to year.

“From a broad brush look at this, Iowa does very well,” he said. “It’s more important to compare Iowa to Iowa — Iowa now, to Iowa 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve done quite well.”

Part of Crawford’s job is to serve as a media and public policy liaison on behalf of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which puts the project together each year. While he said that the Kids Count data “doesn’t go into districts at all,” part of his job is to provide the same information on a county by county basis.

While the latest data won’t be available until this summer, the 2017 data is already available, as the Casey Foundation runs slightly behind.

In looking to national trends and concerns, the Kids Count singled out racial disparity as a major concern, stating that “the nation’s racial inequalities remain deep, systemic and stubbornly persistent.”

Racial disparity was, similarly, a point where Iowa “didn’t do so well,” Crawford said. While a problem state- and nation-wide, Davenport has been singled out in Iowa with legal citations for “disproportionality” in special education, which refers to overidentifying minority students for special education services and discipline.

The federal citation was issued in April 2018, and while a citation is to be resolved in one year, the Iowa Department of Education and Davenport School Board agree the systemic and cultural changes needed to address disproportionality will take longer. Even with the extended timeline, though, Sandy Scmitz, an implementation advisor from the state, chided the school board at an April 8 board meeting for not confronting the problem as promptly as the state expected.

“It’s really time for us to move forward,” she said at the time. “You’ve had a year now to digest this.”

While racial inequality is so broad a topic as to intersect with each of the four categories in the Kids Count data, the data points for each category tend to be more precise. Economic well-being, for example, tracks secure employment for parents, housing costs and the percentage of teens who are neither in school, nor working.

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Education rankings looked at how many young children weren’t in school, proficiencies for fourth-grade reading and eigth-grade math and the four-year high school graduation rates.

Even with a top-ten ranking in education, Crawford said he was concerned about the “stagnation” of young children not in school — 52 percent of children ages 3 and 4 are not in school.

“Once you get behind in school, you tend to stay behind,” he said.

Preschool opportunities are also a grave concern for Stacey Struck, a Bettendorf School Board director and educational consultant for the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency. In addition to concerns about accessibility for families who might not be able to transport their kids for a two-hour preschool program, Struck said kindergarten has changed, and that heightens the gap.

“There’s no play, anymore,” she said. “... Kindergarten is what first grade used to be.”

Part of the state-wide problem is funding: Crawford said families who earn less than 145% of the national poverty level qualify for assistance, but many families hovering above that “still struggle a lot.”

Districts, then, have to look at coordinating funds to increase access, for instance, offering longer programs for working parents.

“To stay longer, you have to braid these other fundings together,” Struck said.

Ultimately, Struck said she thought investing in preschool could lower the need for other costly services later, as kids progress through school.

“If they spent more money on preschool, I think they’ll pay less for remediation later on,” she said. “But no one wants to take that gamble.”

Even with targeted concerns, Iowa is still — at least comparatively — helping to lead the country. Across the river, Illinois is just cracking into the top half. Its overall ranking is 23, largely due to a twelfth-place ranking in Education; in all other categories, Illinois came in at 27.