by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
June 26, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE — Republican gubernatorial nominee Steve Pearce said Monday he would not invest more money in early childhood education until New Mexico’s K-12 public school system is improved.

“Early childhood education — some people think that’s the cure, that’s gonna be the thing that fixes it,” Pearce said at a conference focusing on child well-being. “But the system is so broken, early childhood [education] won’t fix it.”

Pearce, a congressman from Hobbs, said if he’s elected he would first work on addressing the problems within K-12 schools before turning his attention to funding more early childhood education programs.

His stand puts him at odds not only with Democrats who control the state Legislature but with opinion polls that have said a majority of state residents favor additional funding for early childhood education as a way of breaking poverty’s grip on the state.

The Democratic nominee for governor, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of Albuquerque, also has a position opposite of Pearce’s.

She wants to draw about $57 million a year for five years from the state’s $17 billion-plus Land Grant Permanent Fund to provide 80 percent of the state’s eligible children with early education opportunities.

“We’re gonna win universal early childhood education,” Lujan Grisham told the same conference later in the day. “We’re gonna do it.”

She said convincing lawmakers from both political parties to support such a plan, given the opposition to drawing more money from the fund, will be “a tough lift.”

“But it doesn’t hurt to have the governor’s office on the front line,” Lujan Grisham said.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, has opposed using the permanent fund for early childhood education. Nearly all Republicans and some Democrats in the Legislature also have voted against the initiative for the past eight years, saying they are afraid it would diminish the endowment over the long term. Legislative proposals to tap the permanent fund for early childhood programs have failed every year since 2011.

The permanent fund already provides hundreds of millions of dollars each year to public schools, universities and other beneficiaries. Opponents say drawing more from the fund now would deplete it for future generations.

But advocates of early childhood education say spending more on these programs would lead to additional high school and college graduates while reducing prison populations.

The candidates’ differing views on early childhood education programs are part of a larger debate about the state’s dismal public education record. New Mexico generally is at or near the bottom in most national rankings on education.

But Pearce and Lujan Grisham also have points of agreement. Both have said they would do away with the state’s controversial teacher evaluation system, which has inspired two lawsuits.

Lujan Grisham said she would also eliminate the state’s current standards-based assessment test, known as PARCC. Pearce said he would let superintendents and other educational leaders decide what test is best.

Both say they want to address teacher shortages. They also said Monday they want to find a way to provide more behavioral and mental health programs.

But early childhood education has been a hot topic among educators, legislators and child-welfare advocates for years. It’s also one area of public education in which New Mexico actually holds its own when it comes to national studies.

New Mexico in April scored well on an annual report by the National Institute of Early Education Research. The report credits the state with investing enough in pre-K programs to ensure those programs are high quality.

But Pearce said Monday that, even if the state perfected its early childhood education programming, those students will graduate into a K-12 environment in need of a “rework. … It’s not productive to me to expand [a program] while you are overhauling the entire system. That’s never a good thing.”

He said, though, that he would not cut back or eliminate any existing pre-K programs.

Lujan Grisham, on the other hand, said the state needs to find more money for such programs so there is year-to-year consistency, regardless of who is governor. Otherwise, she said, the state will remain 49th or 50th in child well-being.

Monday’s conference was sponsored by New Mexico Voices for Children, an Albuquerque-based group that advocates for more funding and programs to help young children.

The event took place just days before the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation plans to release its annual Kids Count report. That study, which uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates states on the economic status, education, health and family and community support of their children.

Last year, the report ranked New Mexico 49th for child well-being. On Monday Leslie Boissiere, a vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, told 300 people at the conference that she could not reveal where New Mexico stands in the new report until Wednesday.

But, she hinted, “There’s some bad news in it. … It should be an urgent and compelling call to action for New Mexico.”

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