No Pell Grants for Preschoolers

From time to time, legislators (and the governor) get obsessed with an issue—so much so, that they all work together to move forward with a solution to the same problem. Lately their obsession has been the loss of revenue to the state’s lottery scholarship that’s endangering the whole program. There were at least 10 bills in the 2013 legislative session and another 17 bills introduced in this year’s session that dealt with the lottery scholarship.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a BIG fan of the lottery scholarship and other forms of financial help for college kids and their parents. The lottery scholarship is a great program. And it was (and still is) in trouble and in need of a fix. I’m glad they obsessed over it, studied it, seriously debated it, and came up with a solution—at least for the next couple of years.

But I wish that legislators would show the same level of obsession—the same serious study and debate—over how to pay for the high cost of high-quality child care.

Why?

Because high-quality child care costs more than college.

You read that right. A nationwide study has confirmed what I said in a blog almost a year ago—that quality child care in New Mexico costs more than college tuition.

graphic showing high cost of child care

There are many other reasons legislators should obsess over the high cost of child care: because of our high poverty rates, more of our kids need it and fewer working parents can afford it; because preschoolers don’t get Pell Grants, can’t take out a student loan, and don’t qualify for work-study so their parents are stuck with the cost upfront; and because, arguably, high-quality child care is more important to a person’s development than college. It literally builds the foundation for learning that will make college attendance possible later—but only if it’s a high-quality program. And that costs more.

In New Mexico, a high school graduate who meets the minimal academic requirements can get a lottery scholarship no matter what their parents make. To get child care assistance, our youngest kids have to live near the poverty level.* Even then, these most vulnerable children are not likely to receive the high quality of care they need to give them the best shot at success in school and life. We simply do not invest enough resources to ensure that all children receive safe child care, let alone high-quality care.

In others words, because we want as many of our kids to go to college as possible, we do our best to make it affordable. But we don’t do our best to ensure that as many kids as possible will have the academic chops to attend college by making high-quality child care affordable.

Hopefully, the fact that high-quality child care is out-of-reach for too many children, along with the growing awareness of the importance of the early years in a child’s development, will spur lawmakers into greater action. Is it too much to hope that they would one day soon obsess over how to fix funding for high-quality early childhood programs the way they obsessed over fixing funding for the lottery scholarship?

*In New Mexico, assistance for child care costs are currently available only to those families making less than 150% of the Federal Poverty Level. That’s $19,790 or less for a family of three. Until a few years ago, New Mexico provided assistance to families under 200% FPL, but the budget for the program was cut and funding (and eligibility) has yet to be restored.

Bill Jordan is Senior Policy Advisor/Governmental Relations for NM Voices for Children. Reach him at bjordan@nmvoices.org.

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