Op-Ed: We Need A Comprehensive Investment in the State’s Youngest Children

By Eric Griego, State Director, Working Families New Mexico

Originally published in the Las Cruces Sun News on January 22, 2020

NEW MEXICO – The 2019 legislative session was among the most productive ever for New Mexico’s children.   From $450 million in new money for public education, to fully funding Medicaid, the 2019 session was a banner year for kids.  Early childhood was also a big winner with funding increased in the 2019 session, including $24.5 million for New Mexico Pre-K funding, $9.5 million for and $1.7 million for home visiting programs.

These are all much-needed investments in our youngest children. Unfortunately, these investments address only a fraction of the demand for comprehensive, high-quality early care and education and the workforce we need to implement a robust system and serve all eligible kids.  In the 2020 30-day tax and budget session, lawmakers must focus on making long-term, adequate investments in New Mexico’s children to increase access and quality. So what does that look like?

In New Mexico per-pupil spending in the K-12 system in 2018 was about $9,500.  With the new investments in K-12 in 2019 that number will increase significantly.  In comparison, for the roughly 120,000 children under age 5 in New Mexico, the total amount of state and federal spending is less than $319 million per year, which equates to roughly $2,700 per child.  Even if we set a goal of doubling per child early childhood spending, to be at least half of what we spend for K-12, that would cost an additional $300 million. In short, piecemeal spending on only some needed programs will not get us where we need to be as a state.  A major long-term funding mechanism is needed. Fortunately, it already exists.

For almost a decade the majority of voters in New Mexico have supported amending the state constitution to earmark 1 percent of the soon to be $20 billion permanent fund for early childhood investment.  This would generate a $200 million recurring revenue stream representing a critical investment in the next generation of New Mexico children and a game-changer for our economy and working families. Sadly, for years this idea has been stymied by Republicans and a small group of conservative Senate Democrats led by Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith.

Instead, in the 2020 legislative session, the Governor and Senator Smith are proposing the creation of a $320 million early childhood trust fund.  When fully operational the fund would disperse about $25 million per year for early childhood. While this sounds like a significant investment, it would represent less than 10 percent of what is needed for a transformational investment in early childhood.  More importantly, it will distract from and undermine the large-scale investment that is needed to truly provide access to high-quality early childhood programs for the majority of the state’s children currently not receiving early childhood services.

These piecemeal nominal investments are inadequate to build a fully functional system for all kids zero to five years old.  They also delay building a comprehensive system that serves all children beginning at birth through their transition to kindergarten.  Rationing early childhood programs should be unacceptable to our state leaders. As Governor Lujan Grisham herself asked legislators last year “Does my granddaughter get to have early childhood [education] or is it yours?”

Rather than continue this incremental approach, we have an opportunity to pass the constitutional amendment that would provide a long-term sustainable and adequate revenue stream to fund the entire spectrum of early childhood services for all kids 0-5.  Now is not the time to nickel and dime our youngest children. If we have the will, we can make sure every child aged zero to five in the state has the same access to services such as home visits, high quality child care, and universal pre-K. With one of the biggest permanent funds in the country and the largest revenue surplus in the state’s history this should be a no brainer.  If not now, then when?