By Mark K. Shriver, Santa Fe New Mexican
Mar. 6, 2019

In our politically polarized world, we should be encouraged when policy progress is made for kids. And that is exactly what is happening in states across the country, where Republican and Democratic governors are implementing policies to increase access to high-quality early education and child care.

Right here in New Mexico, young children and their families are fortunate that new Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has already designated $60 million to New Mexico’s preschool program in her proposed budget. These resources were allocated as a down payment on the goal of breaking the pervasive cycle of poverty by achieving 80 percent statewide enrollment over the next five years.

Despite rapid economic growth in 2018, a report from New Mexico Voices for Children found that the number of New Mexico children living in poverty is actually increasing — nearly 1 in 3 kids is being raised at or below the poverty line. Thankfully, there are solutions capable of breaking this cycle and setting New Mexico on a path toward giving every child an equal opportunity to succeed.

While New Mexico does have quality pre-K programs, far too many children are not enrolled. In fact, the state is ranked 44th for preschool enrollment. Gov. Lujan Grisham knows that New Mexico shouldn’t be lagging the country in early education, it should be leading it.

That is why in her State of the State address last month, she spoke boldly about enacting a “moonshot for education.” She called upon the Legislature to explore every possible viable approach for education, including a proposed constitutional amendment that will allow the state “to take a responsible pinch of additional money” from the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Allocating a small percentage of the permanent fund is the best way to provide long-term, sustainable investment in our youngest learners. The additional funding will increase economic opportunity for families across the state by boosting lifetime earning potential for parents whose children receive early childhood services. This lasting funding will also support thousands of early childhood careers, providing money needed for quality improvement, including wage increases for early educators and growing the workforce.

It would be a long-term investment in New Mexico’s future and our most precious resource: our children. The return on investment is profound. Research from Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman has found the rate of return on investment in early childhood development for many children can be 13 percent per child, per year, due to improved outcomes in education, health, sociability and economic productivity.

Gov. Lujan Grisham’s bold early learning agenda also includes the creation of an early childhood education department to protect taxpayer dollars through improved coordination and management of the growing need for early childhood programs. These steps, which would increase pre-K accessibility and expand the use of home-visiting programs, have been praised by educators and the business community. Looking down the road, they also represent a quality investment in conditioning the state’s workforce and potential for growth in the future.

Ensuring that all kids, regardless of their economic background, have an equal opportunity to succeed in life is an attainable goal. What New Mexico needs now is the political courage to make robust investments in early childhood education a reality.

Gov. Lujan Grisham’s plans for early education offer a road map for where she wants to take the state. I urge advocates and the state Legislature to move beyond rhetoric and commit to action. By working together, this vision can become reality for every child in New Mexico.

Mark K. Shriver is the chief executive officer of Save the Children Action Network.

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