State of children’s well-being called ‘dire’

by Mike Cook, Las Cruces Bulletin
Nov. 24, 2017

“We should see early childhood education as economic development,” state Rep. Nathan Small, D-Doña Ana, said at the Nov. 10 Southern New Mexico Kids Count conference. The day-long conference was sponsored by Ngage New Mexico and focused on child wellbeing, including early childhood care and education, in the southern part of the state.

New Mexico needs a “responsible, fair revenue system to fund priorities,” Small said. Small was part of a panel discussion of local elected officials about policy solutions for child wellbeing given the political climate.

“The situation is dire,” Las Cruces City Councilor Kasandra Gandara said. “We have lots of families in poverty, food insecure and homeless or near homeless.” Gandara, a licensed social worker, called for an early-education caucus to decide southern New Mexico priorities.

A “culture of acceptance” about children’s conditions has been created, Doña Ana County Commissioner Billy Garrett said, adding that there is reluctance “to talk about some of the big changes that are needed.” Garret said he is encouraged because “we continue to talk,” but also sobered because “we’re not in a position to launch strong, aggressive, radical change.”

Small said he has “a sense of real concern about where we are” locally, statewide, even globally. “The levels of inequality are dangerous.” A “sense of community” should be the tone of discussions about child wellbeing, Small said. “We’re all in this together.”

“We need to find ways to look at what’s best for kids,” state Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Doña Ana, said. Gallegos said about $2.1 billion, or about 40 percent of the state’s general fund, is spent on public education. “How do we spend that money?” she asked. “We need to invest where it counts.”

Part of her role as majority whip in the state House of Representatives, Gallegos said, is to make sure proposed laws, including those dealing with children, are “fully vetted and benefit the community. Good policy is really important.”

Education is the best way to deal with poverty, which is the major issue, Las Cruces City Councilor Gill Sorg said. “Stay engaged,” he told conference attendees. “Advocacy is so important.”

During a question-and-answer session at the end of the panel discussion, Las Cruces Public Schools Board of Education member Ray Jaramillo said 3 percent of the state budget is spent on early childhood education. “It’s not a priority,” Jaramillo said. “We have to take care of that first.” Jaramillo is director of the Alpha School childcare center in Las Cruces.

Others attending the panel discussion included State Sen. Bill Soules and state Reps. Joanne Ferrary and Rudy Martinez, all D-Doña Ana. Speakers included New Mexico Voices for Children board member and former state representative Nate Cote, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Vice President Nick Johnson, New Mexico Voices for Children Kids Count Director Amber Wallin and NMSU Center for Community Analysis Data Analyst Erica Surova.

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