Op-Ed: Early Childhood Trust Fund provides political cover

Originally published in the Albuquerque Journal on February 19, 2020

By Eric Griego, New Mexico Working Families Party State Director

As the 2020 legislative session enters its final days, it is likely the most transformational proposal for New Mexico’s youngest children will once again fall victim to a handful of unsupportive state senators. HJR1 is a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide whether to earmark 1 percent of the state’s $20 billion permanent fund for early childhood investment. It is currently stalled in the Senate and will likely not make it to the floor for a vote before the session adjourns Feb. 20. The proposal, which has broad support among voters and has passed the House twice, would generate a $200 million recurring revenue stream representing a critical investment in the next generation of N.M. children.

In the 2019 debate on the early childhood constitutional amendment Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked legislators “does my granddaughter get to have early childhood (education) or is it yours?” Despite her pleas, the bill died in 2019 as it is likely to do in this year’s session. However, instead of once again supporting a comprehensive funding source that would help provide better access to children across the state, in the 2020 legislative session the governor and Senate Finance Chair John Arthur Smith are proposing the creation of a $320 million early childhood trust fund. When fully operational in the next few years the fund would disperse an estimated $25 million per year for early childhood. However, this new proposal would not be available to meet current needs and would represent less than 10% of what is needed for a transformational investment in early childhood. More troubling, it will distract from and undermine the large-scale investment 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.

To put this funding in perspective, 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 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 such as the constitutional amendment is desperately needed.

While the proposed early childhood trust fund will provide some political cover for those senators facing reelection this year, nominal investments are inadequate to build a fully functional system for all kids 0 to 5 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.

Rather than continue this incremental approach, senators should have the courage and foresight to pass the constitutional amendment and allow voters to decide whether we should provide a long-term, sustainable and adequate revenue stream to fund the entire spectrum of early childhood services for all kids 0-5. If we have the will and trust New Mexico’s voters, we can make sure every child aged 0 to 5 in the state has the same access to services such as home visits, high-quality childcare 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 for state leaders. What we lack is the political will to do right by all — not just a lucky fraction — of New Mexico’s youngest kids.