Tennessee's push to increase the number of students who attend college has helped increase the state's standing on a national report that looks at the well-being of children.
Overall, Tennessee ranked 35th among the 50 states in how well it ensures the well-being of children, according to the 2017 KIDS COUNT data book and rankings released Wednesday. Last year the state ranked 38th in the nation on the report.
The Tennessee Promise scholarship program, especially, is attributed to helping reduce the number of kids age 16 to 19 not in school or not working, a key economic indicator of child welfare on the report, according to Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.
"The indicator where the state made the most progress — teens not in school and not working — there were 35,000 in that status in Tennessee in 2014 and 24,000 in 2015," O'Neal said. "That year (2015) was when Tennessee Promise came into effect."
Tennessee's highest ranking yet
For Tennessee, the 35th place ranking is the highest ever on the annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on child welfare. The state's rankings this year are based on 2015 data.
"I do think what this report says is there are some real gains in Tennessee," O'Neal said. "And I think it is foreseeable that the state will continue to do even better."
Tennessee was able to maintain its higher ranking in child health and showed gains in the overall education of children.
While the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which provides money and mentoring to increase college attendance, was a strong driver, student proficiency in lower grades also propelled the state forward.
An increase in fourth- and eighth-grade reading proficiency among students, as well as graduation numbers, helped drive improvements.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the positive gains are a part of raised expectations for students. And in recent years, she said, the state has focused on improving early grade literacy skills through the Read to be Ready initiative and is intentionally focused on improving math proficiency.
"These results reflect the deep commitment our state has made to improving educational outcomes for all students and further confirm that we must continue this positive momentum to provide even greater opportunities for our students moving forward," McQueen said.
More work to be done to improve kids' lives
But the state continues to rank in the bottom half of the country in ensuring happy and healthy kids. And the state's ranking in community and family well-being as it relates to child welfare remains a low point for the state.
The concentration of kids in high-poverty areas has increased slightly to 15 percent of all Tennessee kids, or 230,000 children.
And the number of young children not in school, such as a prekindergarten program, has increased.
Jennifer Donnals, spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Haslam, said the improvements the state has made, especially in education, are encouraging, but there is still more work to do.
"We are not where we want to be, but with continued focus, we can make the quality of life better for families and children in Tennessee," she said.
Reach Jason Gonzales at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ByJasonGonzales.
Tennessee's 2017 KIDS COUNT ranking
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has issued the KIDS COUNT data book yearly since 1990 to help understand the well-being of children from state to state. The rankings are determined by four categories, each with four indicators — for a total of 16 factors — that look at children's welfare across the nation.
Overall, Tennessee ranked 35th among all 50 states for the economic, education, health and community well-being of its children.
Economic well-being of children: 35
The state has fared better in the number of adults holding secure jobs, according to Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth.
Education of children: 33
Tennessee has made strides in student math and reading proficiency, as well as the number of kids graduating on time, O'Neal said.
Health of children: 26
O'Neal said child health has led Tennessee for many years and the state has seen a higher ranking since the creation of the TennCare program.
Community and family well-being: 40
This was the lowlight of the report for the state. O'Neal said the rising numbers of kids concentrated in high-poverty areas and an inability to keep pace with the decrease in teen births nationwide were contributors to the low ranking.