Point of view

Tayloe: Our at-risk children, our shame

March 17, 2012 

The recent brouhaha over how to define poverty is taking the spotlight off what really matters: our children. There are more than twice as many children living in poverty across the state than there are students enrolled in all 17 of the UNC institutions. North Carolina has the 10th worst child poverty rate in the country – ninth when you look at poverty among our most vulnerable children, those under age 6.

Currently, so many of our children are growing up in poverty that 35 percent of 5-year-olds do not have age-appropriate language skills, one-third of third-graders are not reading at grade level, and 28 percent of our students are dropping out of school before graduation. And only one-third of our at-risk preschool children have access to quality preschool programs.

North Carolina will never have the work force necessary to compete in the global marketplace if we do not address the needs of poor young children.

The effects of poverty echo throughout a child’s life, well into their adult years. In North Carolina, economically disadvantaged students are 25 percent less likely to pass their end-of-grade math and reading tests, more likely to be suspended and 16 percent less likely to turn the tassel with their peers at graduation.

These children grow into adults who experience costly, chronic health problems, face greater risk of slipping into the criminal justice system and earn significantly less over the course of their careers.

These embarrassing statistics become even more shameful in light of new recommendations to reduce access to the very programs that have been shown to give at-risk preschool children the boost they need to become school- and success-ready. If adopted, these regulations would deny thousands of at-risk children access to the quality preschool experiences that help narrow achievement gaps and improve outcomes for children living in poverty.

North Carolina’s future prosperity depends on our ability to transition today’s children into tomorrow’s workers, innovators and entrepreneurs. We must heed the warnings and rulings of Judge Howard Manning Jr. and assure that every one of our at-risk children has what she/he needs to become a competitive student in our schools and a responsible member of our communities.

The subject of our funding arguments should not be the poverty level, but rather the at-risk children whose futures depend upon our timely investment in their preschool experiences.

Dr. David T. Tayloe Jr. is a member of Action for Children North Carolina’s Board of Directors and a past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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