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Tennessee is short-changing its children

Release Date: Aug. 7, 2001Contact: Linda O'Neal or Pam Brown
Enclosures Phone: (615) 741-2633

Tennessee is short-changing its children in education, training and other areas, according to a new report released today, “Tennessee and Its Children: Unmet Needs 2001.” The report also discusses Tennessee’s economic deficit and the impact of tax reform on Tennessee children and families.

“The most basic children’s issue in Tennessee is tax reform,” said Linda O’Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, which released the report. “As long as we have insufficient resources as a state, we cannot make the investments necessary to provide all Tennessee children the opportunity to maximize their potential.” 

Kids Count 2001 placed Tennessee 41st in teens who are high school dropouts, but the state still does not invest in the programs and intervention that keep children in school and improve high school graduation rates.  Governor Sundquist’s proposed reading initiative was a victim of insufficient revenue.  In addition to its’ important focus on reading, the initiative included crucial early childhood education programs and intervention for middle school students who are unlikely to pass Gateway Tests required for graduation.

The value of early intervention through quality early childhood education is well-documented. Every dollar spent on quality early childhood education saves $7 in negative outcomes such as school dropout, juvenile delinquency, special education, teen pregnancy and long-term welfare dependency, according to the report.

TennCare is often maligned as the source of Tennessee’s budget problems, yet the report documents that TennCare has saved the state billions of dollars since its inception, while covering significantly more Tennesseans than the old Medicaid program did. Additionally, TennCare has made important contributions to more positive outcomes for children. Tennessee’s Kids Count 2001 national ranking on infant mortality was 36th, the lowest ranking since the reports began in 1990 and considerably better than the high of 43rd

TennCare pays for the prenatal care, delivery and hospital stay of almost half of all babies born in Tennessee each year. With almost half (45 percent) of all TennCare enrollees under age 20, it has also contributed to improved immunization rates and better health and dental care for children. Tennessee’s child death ranking in 2001 Kids Count was 31st, again the lowest in the 1990s, when the high was 42nd.

Tennessee ranks 33rd nationally in per capita income and, according to O’Neal, “should be able to attain comparable rankings in outcomes and expenditures for children. In fact, we do have some outcome rankings near this range but unfortunately for Tennessee children, the state is more likely to rank in the 40s on expenditures and other measures that impact prospects for a bright future for our children.”

Inadequate revenues resulted in the elimination of numerous recommended improvements from the budget passed by the General Assembly on July 12 and subsequently vetoed by the governor. Cut from the budget were funds for educating young at-risk children, recruiting and training advocates for abused children who come under juvenile court jurisdiction, funding for higher education, etc. Increasingly the only way to ensure adequate funding for services for Tennessee children and other vulnerable citizens has been to resort to the courts, which have often ordered substantial increases in funding to meet even minimally acceptable standards.

The state’s failure to spend the money needed to educate Tennessee children is detailed in the report. The lack of an educated, computer-literate workforce puts Tennessee at a disadvantage when it tries to lure high paying companies to its office parks and industrial sites.

One group ranked Tennessee as worst in the nation in its Education Climate Index and other rankings show Tennessee at 49th and 50th in rankings of per capita and per child education spending.

Despite receiving a grade of “F” on Human Resources because of the lack of skills of its workforce, the state inadequately funded higher education and forced state colleges and universities to raise tuition again this year. Chronic underfunding continues to limit Tennessee’s ability to attract qualified professors and researchers, as state investments in higher education have been reduced to a greater extent than in any other Southern state.

Don’t think Tennesseans can bring themselves up to the level of the other states by going to the library and educating themselves. The state ranks 49th in library systems and 48th in total library expenditures.

The photo of children on the cover of “Unmet Needs” includes a banner that reads “Tennessee’s Most Precious Resource.”  “While many give lip service to such a motto,” O’Neal said, “the data suggest that for Tennessee children this is a hollow promise. Children truly are our most precious resource, but we are squandering that resource by failing to provide essential services to meet their needs today and for all their tomorrows.”

The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth is a state agency created by the Tennessee General Assembly to advocate for improvements in the quality of life for Tennessee children and families. It has existed under different names since the 1950s. Printing costs of this publication were provided by the KIDS COUNT program, which is funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to disadvantaged children. For more information about Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, see the agency's Web site at www.state.tn.us/tccy/.

For more information, contact Linda O’Neal, executive director, TCCY, or Pam Brown, KIDS COUNT director, (615) 741-2633.