by Sarah Graham, Santa Fe New Mexican
March 20, 2018

When it comes to early childhood education in New Mexico, the fight for funding is far from over.

Despite their measure failing in the New Mexico Legislature every year since 2011, early childhood advocates say that next year they are redoubling an effort to fund prekindergarten and other programs with money from the state’s $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund.

“I think the debate has shifted from whether or not we should do this and make this investment to how we should pay for it,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the measure this past year.

That shift, he said, is a sign that years of activism have softened intense opposition.

Martinez’s pledge to renew the fight comes as more than 200 child advocates plan to meet Thursday in Española to discuss the state of child well-being in Northern New Mexico, where data shows 28 percent of children live in poverty. The event is the group’s second-ever regional conference.

The proposed constitutional amendment that Martinez says he will introduce again in January would allow voters to decide whether to use an additional 1 percent annually from the endowment to make prekindergarten available statewide. It also would expand parenting classes and home visitation for pregnant women.

But to make the ballot, the measure needs approval from the state House of Representatives and Senate.

Five percent of the endowment — about $683 million this year — already goes to other beneficiaries, mostly K-12 public schools.

Another 1 percent would have translated to about $160 million for early childhood education. Advocates say about two-thirds of New Mexico’s children are underserved or have no access to prekindergarten.

In the legislative session that ended in February, Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, killed the measure without giving it a hearing. He said it would be fiscally irresponsible to pull more money from the fund, and that the measure would not have passed even if he had allowed it to be considered.

“Any time you go over a 5 percent distribution, you’re putting that statistically into a danger zone,” Smith, D-Deming, said in a phone interview Monday. “It won’t be able to weather a downturn in the markets or grow enough to offset inflation and population growth.”

The measure had passed the House of Representatives on a 36-33 vote, with all but two Democrats — and no Republicans — in favor.

Smith also said legislators separately have voted to increase funding to early childhood programs from $136 million to $305 million in recent years.

Data from six Northern New Mexico counties (Mora, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Miguel, Santa Fe and Taos) paints a frustrating picture. The childhood poverty rate exceeds the statewide average of 27 percent – nine percentage points higher than the national average. Nearly half of all families renting homes have a high housing-cost burden. And 13 percent of teens aged 16-19 are neither working nor attending school.

For Amber Wallin, deputy director of Voices for Children, facing such trials “sets

[children] up for a lot of challenges in school and later on in life,” and makes investment in early childhood education all the more important.

“Too many of our kids are … hungry,” Wallin said. “They face a risk of child abuse and other risks. The more opportunities we can give them in those early years, the more chance they have to succeed, not just in those early years, but also later in life.”

The organization has advocated for the constitutional amendment, and Wallin said the group is all in to resume the fight. While they support using the Land Grant Permanent Fund, they’re not married to it.

In theory, neither is Martinez. But he said there doesn’t seem to be another logical source with enough money to expand early childhood education across the state.

“There’s really no tax increase that we can make short of a substantial personal income tax increase that would be earmarked specifically for early childhood education,” he said.

And that earmarked tax hike is even less likely to appeal to his Republican colleagues.

If you go

What: Northern New Mexico Kids Count Conference
Who: Hosted by New Mexico Voices for Children and several partner organizations
When: 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday
Where: Northern New Mexico College campus in Española.
How much: General admission is $10 per person or $25 for continuing-education credit. Students enter for free.

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