- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - One-third of West Virginia schoolchildren under age 6 live in poor households and are at risk of falling significantly behind their classmates’ achievements, a report released Tuesday said.

The vocabularies of children as young as 18 months from low-income families are already several months behind their peers, and that continues throughout their educations, according to the West Virginia KIDS COUNT annual report on children’s well-being.

The report said there is a 24 percent reading proficiency gap between low-income fourth graders and their wealthier classmates, and a 23 percent gap in math proficiency for low-income eighth graders.

“We all want the best for every child born in West Virginia, no matter what the family’s income,” West Virginia KIDS COUNT executive director Margie Hale said in the report. “Yet we know that socio-economic status accounts for more of the achievement differences in language, vocabulary and other academic skills than any other factor by far.

“This persistent achievement gap not only hurts kids, it hurts our ability to have a thriving economy.”

Eighty percent of West Virginia 3-year-olds are not enrolled in preschool, a contributing factor to the state’s education ranking of 46th in the nation by the nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation. Children from poor families are more than twice as likely to drop out of school than their peers, the report said.

It suggested continued investments in high-quality child care can help close the achievement gap, noting expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid and a commitment by the state to establish development programs for young children, including work by the West Virginia Early Childhood Planning Task Force.

The report also suggested the implementation of family-friendly policies such as earned paid sick leave, a state earned income tax credit and a higher minimum wage for workers.

West Virginia’s minimum wage increased by 75 cents to $8 per hour on Jan. 1, the first boost since 2008. The mark is set to increase again in January 2016 to $8.75. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Overall, the report ranked West Virginia 37th in the nation for child well-being, based on indicators that include teen birth rate, infant mortality rate, the percentage of children living in poverty and the percentage of high school dropouts.

Among the state’s 55 counties, the report ranked Putnam County first and McDowell County last for child well-being.

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