Mississippi children still have it worst even after improvements, ranking says

Arlington Elementary School third grade teacher Kathy Shoemaker goes over a reading worksheet with her students on April 25 in Pascagoula.
Arlington Elementary School third grade teacher Kathy Shoemaker goes over a reading worksheet with her students on April 25 in Pascagoula. amccoy@sunherald.com File

First, the good news. Mississippi cut the percentage of children without health insurance in half from 2010 to 2015. In fact, with just 4 percent of its children are without health insurance, the state is beating the United States as a whole, which has 5 percent of its children without health insurance.

The state also has reduced its teen birth rate from 55 per 1,000 to 35 per 1,000 in 2015, reduced the percentage of low birth-weight babies and the percentage of teens abusing drugs or alcohol.

Now the bad news, the state still ranks 50th overall in the Kids Count released Tuesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The state also ranks 50th in two of the four broad categories Kids Count measures: economic well-being, and family and community. It ranks 48th in the other two: health and education. Its economic well-being score was dragged down by the fact that 37 percent of Mississippi’s children lived in families where no parent has full-time, year-round employment. It lost ground in the family and community rankings because the percentage of children living in single-family households increased from 46 percent to 48 percent by 2015.

“We improved in 12 of 16 indicators (that make up the broader categories),” said Ben Walker, lead data researcher for Kids Count at Mississippi State’s Family and Children Research Unit in the Social Science Research Center. “But all the other states have been improving as well.”

Mississippi has been off the bottom in just one of the 28 years of the ranking. That was in 2013, when New Mexico sank past Mississippi.

Kids Count credited the Affordable Care Act with the improvement in the health score. But, with the act in jeopardy and no guarantee that the Medicaid expansion and the Children’s Health Insurance Program will continue, those gains could be fleeting. However, Mississippi has been improving its health outcomes without the Medicaid expansion, which was rejected by Gov. Phil Bryant.

Still, said Walker, Mississippi has been able to get more children on Medicaid and the CHIPs.

And, he said, it has been trying to improve its education system through programs such as the third-grade gate, which holds back students who can’t read at the third-grade level. Walker said it’s too early to judge the success of that program.

And, its getting high marks for its pre-school programs. The National Institute for Early Education put Mississippi at the top of its preschool rankings earlier this year.

“We have seen the percentage of Mississippi’s children covered by health insurance increase substantially over the past several years, as well as a decrease in the teenage birth rate. However, many more areas need to improve in order to change Mississippi’s overall ranking,” said Linda Southward, director of Mississippi’s Kids Count. “States that consistently invest in children’s health and education, while providing economic opportunities on behalf of their families and communities, end up promoting a common good that makes a positive difference in children’s well-being.”

Mississippi has been ranked at or near the bottom in education for years and critics said it is because it has failed to fully fund education under its Mississippi Adequate Education Program. It hired EdBuild, a New Jersey company, to evaluate the MAEP and suggest ways to improve it. EdBuild finished its work earlier this year but the Legislature hasn’t acted on it.

There are two lawsuits spending against the state over education funding. There also is an ongoing effort to expand charter schools in the state and school vouchers.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton