Georgia can do more to help its kids

This week marked the annual release of the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kid Count data book, which ranks states based on an aggregate of individual measures of child well-being.

A quote in the article by the Annie E. Casey Foundation president summed it up best: "Georgia's aspirations for its kids still have a ways to go before they're fulfilled."

Indeed, Georgia achieved a rank of 41, an improvement over last year's 44th. This improvement is encouraging, but it keeps us in the bottom 10 states, a place we've owned for all but one of the past 18 years that Kids Count has existed.

Ironies abound as you compare this with other measurements of progress for Georgia in the past 18 years. We're ranked one of the top 10 states to do business, have one of the highest concentrations of Fortune 500 companies, are in the top 25 states for average household income, provide one of the nation's top pre-k programs and are a leader in child immunization.

We've made so much progress as a place to work, live and play in the past two decades, yet our kids can't seem to make similar gains. What's missing?

We can all agree that Georgia's children must be protected from abuse, neglect, violence or other harm. We can all agree that they should have a top-notch education preparing them for success in the workplace. We can all agree on keeping them out of trouble and out of the courtroom. And most assuredly, we can all agree that they should get the health care they deserve.

Georgia has taken some outstanding first steps with its Department of Early Care and Learning and pre-k programs, recognizing their long term benefits and return on investment.

Despite funding issues with PeachCare, Georgia was one of the most successful states in reducing the number of uninsured children. A new system placing graduation coaches in high schools is a positive approach to reducing the dropout rate. The list goes on.

So it's clear, through these initiatives, that we're committed to improving the lives of children. What's missing is a more a comprehensive, strategic and integrated approach to serving children, centered on a policy agenda with measurable, long-term goals that take into account the needs of kids along with ROI for taxpayers.

One in four of Georgia's children lives in poverty, 285,000 children still live without health insurance, the rate of low-birth weight babies is on the rise and Georgia has the second-highest percentage of high school dropouts in the nation.

We can change these circumstances but not without a sense of urgency. Georgia has the leadership, the resources and the aspirations to make steady progress over the long-term. But aspiration without will is fantasy. Let's demand of ourselves and demand of our elected officials to finally break out of this cycle of low performance, because we are better than that.

Pat Willis is executive director of Voices for Georgia's Children. The organization's Web site is www.georgiavoices.org.