LAS CRUCES - While there's growing support to expand early childhood education in New Mexico, is it a cure-all for the state's poor education rankings?
Just ahead of the start of the 2018 legislative session next week, that question was posed Tuesday to two lawmakers, state Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces and chair of the Senate Education Committee, and state Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences and operator of a nonprofit childcare center, during a forum hosted by the Sun-News and the online news organization New Mexico In Depth. Both agreed it's not the proverbial "silver bullet." Soules said, however, he believes it is an "important piece."
"Early childhood education, all of the research indicates, is the best return on investment that the state can make," he said at the forum, which took place at Beck's Coffee House. "It would make Wall Street people envious — the amount they say comes back — but it's a long-term investment."
The Legislature, meanwhile, is on short-term election cycles of two and four years, Soules noted.
Dow said that, while early childhood education is her "passion," said thinks the state's struggles are linked to its poor economy. New Mexico needs a high-quality K-12 education system and more jobs, she said.
"(O)ur programs are low-cost or no-cost; they're based on a sliding scale," she said of early childhood education centers. "And every day, families come in that qualify for 'free.' That means they're below 100 percent of poverty. And in my community, the secondary impact of that is child abuse. It's neglect. It's domestic violence. It's substance abuse. So, I'm looking a little bit bigger at the fact that we're one of 10 states in the U.S. that has more people on assistance than are employed."
Dow and Soules said there's a complex patchwork of services available for young children, ranging from in-home visits by experts to basic childcare centers to pre-K to centers focusing on early childhood education. Funding for different services stems from a variety of sources and is routed through several state agencies.
More funding needed?
New Mexico currently spends more than $350 million annually on a gamut of early childhood services.
Soules said that's a "pretty small amount" in comparison to the overall state budget — more than $6 billion yearly — and the number of children in the state in need of aid. Services need to span several years, from pre-natal to when children enter school, he said.
"It sounds like a whole lot, but there are a lot of children in the state of New Mexico," he said. "There are always places you can probably be more efficient, but some of what's holding it back are the resources. It's the resources to raise the pay for early childhood workers, so that we can attract more (workers) into our colleges and have the workforce."
Continued Soules: "There's a whole lot of chicken and eggs. And almost all of them revert back to: Is there enough funding to move these things forward? And I would say: Absolutely, there is not enough funding."
Challenges in rural NM
Dow said rural New Mexico faces its own challenges to getting access to child care and early childhood education.
"A New Mexico pre-K classroom, to be sustainable and viable, needs 20 children," she said. "So what happens in communities like Cliff, N.M., where there aren't 20 4-year-olds?"
Dow said some changes may be needed to give the state flexibility to boost services in areas that are quite different from one another.
"I think we have some rules and regulations and some specific things in statute that make flexibility a little bit different right now," she said. "But I do believe there's consensus, bi-partisan support between the chambers and the Fourth Floor (governor's office), to expand early childhood, and to make sure children are entering school ready. The research is there, we know it's important, and I believe there's a will to do that."
Soules said too much of the state's spending is focused on basic childcare. While that's an important service, early childhood education is more specialized, he said.
"(W)e spend a lot of money on making sure the kids are safe and well-fed, which is good, but it's not getting them prepared to do well when they get into school," he said.
Las Crucen Tom Biglen, a former school board member for a district in Montana, was among about 20 attendees at the evening forum. He said he's interested in seeing if there's a way retirees, who have a lot of expertise in different subjects, might be able to boost the capacity for early childhood education or K-12 education. It would be an outlet for them to stay active and volunteer, he said.
"People are happy they're able to retire, but they become disappointed when they lose the community service aspect," he said.
The legislative session launches Tuesday, Jan. 16 in Santa Fe. This year is a 30-day session.