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On Education, U.S. Doesn't Match Rhetoric With Action, Report Says

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UPDATED 1:40 p.m.

Despite a prioritization of children in the national agenda, the United States seriously lags in keeping our youngest citizens healthy and ensuring they are ready to learn, according to a new joint report.

In "America's Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S.," the nation earned an average C- overall with lackluster grades in five separate categories: Economic security, early childhood, K-12 education, permanence and stability, and health and safety. Those factors all play heavily into outcomes in student learning, dropout prevention, and discipline.

The report, by the organizations Save the Children and First Focus, is the first in what may be an annual series of evaluations. The U.S. Senate commissioned a report card series in 2010 after a subcommittee chaired by former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) launched an investigation into the recession's impact on youth and academic performance.

"America has always risen to the challenge of ensuring a brighter future for our children," the study says. "It is time we rise to that challenge again. C- is just not good enough. We can do better."

The organizations formally presented their report at a conference this morning in Washington. Representatives from Save the Children and First Focus joined Dodd, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and actor and Save the Children Ambassador Jennifer Garner to discuss the several issues addressed in the study.

"We don't as a country put our money where our mouth is," said Mark Shriver, senior vice president of Save the Children.

While the report notes points of progress, in no major area of grading did it give the United States anything above a C+.

Economic Security: D According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 43.9 percent of children under age 18 were living in low-income families during 2011. The report highlights the particular vulnerability of families that, while just above the poverty line, nevertheless have significant difficulty making ends meet.

The report praises some federal attempts to mitigate damage done by the recession, including the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, implemented with 2009 stimulus funds. But the report card also criticized underwhelming efforts to combat food insecurity; the USDA estimates 8.5 million children live in households without adequate food access.

"[P]rograms benefiting children have continually been put on the chopping block, and reauthorization of many important programs is slow to come," the report says.

Unmentioned by the report is the payroll tax cut, which neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress seem interested in renewing when it expires at the end of this year. In 2012, that tax cut will save families making $35,000 a year about $700. (The poorest families won't save a lot, but many will see some savings.)

Early Childhood: C- While 39 states offered state-funded preschool programs in 2010-11, only 28 percent of 4-year-olds and only 4 percent of 3-year-olds enrolled; funding for preschool programs fell by nearly $60 million, and those cuts came after $127 million in stimulus money.

K-12 Education: C- Because no benchmark would be complete without mentioning the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the report card highlights weak NAEP scores among minority students in math, reading, and science. The report casts a portion of blame on ineffective implementation of Title I, the part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which specifies funding for high-poverty districts.

"School districts must show that all their schools are funded at comparable levels before they can receive federal education funds, yet over 40 percent of schools receiving Title I funds are funded at less than their district average," it says.

Permanence and Stability: D The report card added further urgency to calls to address inequalities in the discipline of minority students.

The only full failing grade went to the Obama Administration due to its immigration policies. Between January and June of 2011, the United States carried out 46,486 deportations of the parents of U.S. citizen children. Those deportations, the report says, create long-term financial and psychological crises in children separated from their families.

Health and Safety: C+ In the best news, the report card gave an A- for children's health insurance, since 90.6 percent of children had health coverage in 2011. But that came tempered with poorer scores based on access to mental health and prevalent health problems, including tobacco use and obesity.

While the report card certainly targets room for legislative improvement, it made clear that everyone shared responsibility—including the responsibility to vote wisely.

"With the election just around the corner, and in all local and federal elections, the first step is to vote for politicians who will prioritize this nation's greatest resource—our children," it said.

The report card largely jives with similar studies by the Brookings Institution, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Children's Defense Fund, and the Foundation for Child Development, though those evaluations don't use grading systems.

Though the sub-grades average slightly lower than a C-, the ultimate grade was subjective, to denote some positive outlook, according to Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus.

Either way, the news isn't great. America is about to get her TV privileges revoked.

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