RAPID CITY, S.D. — The overall well-being of South Dakota's growing youth population improved in 2019 despite a low availability of early childhood education options, according to an annual report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The 2019 edition of philanthropy's Kids Count Data Book ranked South Dakota 26th in the nation in terms of child welfare, up from 29th in 2018. But noting that roughly two-thirds of the state's children do not attend preschool, the report goes on to call for greater investments in early childhood programs.

State lawmakers earlier this year floated legislation that would have established a committee dedicated to studying South Dakota's pre-kindergarten programs. Fearing that it would lead to the creation of a publicly funded statewide preschool system that pushed a "socialist agenda," opponents later killed it.

While high school graduation rates appear to have improved somewhat, the report ultimately ranked South Dakota 31st in the nation for education. Based on an analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the report found that 64% of children in South Dakota cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade, down slightly from 2009, and that 62% were not proficient in math by eighth grade, up slightly from 2009.

Carole Cochran, project director for South Dakota's Kids Count, attributed the overall increase in South Dakota's standings to a 2010 change in state law that raised the school dropout age from 16 to 18.

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South Dakota also ranked 45th in terms of child health, according to the report, up from 49th in 2017. Death rates figured at 41 per every 100,000 children ages one to 19 that year, which was the last year the data was available.

Cochran surmised that the increase has something to do with the fact that youth can get a restricted drivers license at the age of 14.

In terms of economic well-being, South Dakota ranked ninth. Child poverty rates decreased, according to the report, although one in five children lives in such conditions as of 2017.

According to the report, South Dakota's child population grew by a little more than 15,000 since 1990.