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Alabama Advocate: Progress for Kids Made – More Needed


MONTGOMERY, Ala. – One of the largest international efforts to engage high-tech businesses, the Paris Air Show, just ended. Gov. Robert Bentley was one of the thousands in attendance with the intent of getting high-tech businesses to come to Alabama. The next day, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published its annual “KIDS COUNT” Data Book. The connection?

Our state’s children and youth whose education, health, economic well-being and family and community are reflected on the Alabama profile page of the Data Book will be the individuals most likely to fill new jobs that will eventually result from contacts made in Paris and other economic development efforts we are undertaking.

Linda Tilly

Despite the often touted mobility of individuals in the U.S., research shows that nearly 60 percent of people wind up living in the state in which they were born. Companies will rely in great measure on Alabama’s children to fill Alabama’s increasingly technical jobs in the future.

The good news in the 2013 Data Book is that Alabama has moved out of the bottom five states for overall child well-being for the first time in the more than 20 years of the report’s publication. We had a great deal of progress to make over the years just to catch up with other states in the well-being of children – and even more progress to jump ahead in the rankings since other states weren’t standing still.

With the hard work of child advocates, dedicated community agencies, passionate program volunteers, health, welfare and education leaders at the state level and some legislative champions, we’ve made progress and established the momentum to make even more.

Alabama has put remarkable energy and state-local teamwork into economic development. This has moved us from a state courting chicken processing plants to one winning major automotive, aerospace and bioscience facilities. The latest issue of Delta Airlines’ “Sky” magazine has a feature section on Alabama called, “No Limits.”

It starts by noting, “Long known for its winning college football teams and its Southern hospitality, Alabama has quietly become an economic engine.”  We’re making news in economic development. We’re now making progress, albeit slow, in improving the current and future success of all of our state’s children to participate in a growing economy.

National and international companies seeking locations for new plants can read the profiles of the future workforce of each state in the “KIDS COUNT” Data Book. The publication includes four measures of well-being in each of four domains – education, health, economic well-being and family and community.

How well our children do in each of these areas paints a picture of how prepared they may be to participate in the 21st century workforce. It’s great that we no longer rest in the bottom five on the list. Let’s set a goal and make plans that will move us out of the bottom ten and beyond.

Richard Meyers, president and director of the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, says in the “Sky” article: “Government official and economic development organizations can make plans and offer incentives all they want in an attempt to attract businesses to a state, but eventually, somebody has to actually do the work that comes with those jobs.”

Many of those “somebodies” will be the Alabama children represented in the numbers in the 2013 Data Book and its future editions.

The “Sky” article also quotes Bill Taylor, president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, as stating: “Companies that are interested in coming here ask about education. They want to know how they’re going to get this sophisticated workforce pulled together.”

Alabama ranks 44th in the education measures reported in this year’s Data Book. Those measures include percent of children not attending preschool, fourth graders not proficient in reading, eighth graders not proficient in math and high school students not graduating on time.

Thanks in great part to the Alabama Reading Initiative, the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative, Alabama’s First Class Pre-K Program, the Alabama Department of Education’s Plan 2020 for all students to graduate college and “career ready” and the state Board of Education’s adoption of more rigorous K-12 standards, our state is moving in the right direction in education.

We need to make sure that our policy makers continue to support and expand such programs that produce results.

In the health domain of the Data Book Alabama ranks 35th. Child advocates worked years ago to implement and support a stellar child health insurance program in the state, AllKids, and to successfully advocate for laws to identify and prevent causes of child and teen deaths. Those efforts have paid off.

Economic well-being as reported in the Data Book unfortunately has worsened as the recession has pushed more children into poverty. Family and community measures show a mixed picture with teen births declining but more children living in single-parent families. We have more work to do.

It will take not only child advocates but business and other community leaders and local and state policy makers giving serious attention to children’s issues. For too long that has not been the case. Children’s issues are business issues and children’s issues deserve greater understanding and attention from our policymakers. Child advocates can offer many resources to both groups.

If we put the same remarkable energy and state-local teamwork into investing in and supporting all of our children as we have in bringing high-tech companies to the state, Alabama can become a real model of success in so many ways. Our state can become an even more attractive place to live, raise children and do business. We’ve made a lot of progress but we have a long way to go.

The 2013 KIDS COUNT Data Book indicates that we are on the way. We must ensure that, in fact, continued progress is the reality.

Linda Tilly is executive director of VOICES for Alabama’s Children a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan child advocacy organization. You can contact her at ltilly@alavoices.org. 

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