By Stephanie Ly and James Jimenez, Santa Fe New Mexican
June 7, 2019

When children have access to opportunities they need to grow up healthy and reach their full potential, we all benefit. Thanks to rigorous scientific research, we know that children who have access to high-quality, full-day prekindergarten do better. They read earlier, are better prepared for school, and are more likely to graduate and perform better over the long term. By investing in pre-K, we will spend less money in the long-term on special education, poverty and jails — and we will ensure our children can compete in tomorrow’s economy.

That’s the promise of high-quality universal pre-K. If we invest now, we offer New Mexico’s children the best chance to succeed — a promise every child in New Mexico deserves. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham knows this — she’s a fierce advocate for universal pre-K and campaigned on its promise. With an equitable and stable growth plan, she has stated that we can get to universal pre-K within five years. That means almost 14,000 new pre-K seats for New Mexico’s children.

Fewer than half of all 3- and 4-year-olds in New Mexico are enrolled in preschool. New Mexico offers pre-K services in both public schools and private early care facilities. While the two types are fairly comparable, the salaries are not. Pre-K teachers at public schools are paid the same salary as K-12 teachers, have the same employee benefits and are required to have specific education credentials. That matters, because the level of pre-K quality is largely determined by teacher education.

New Mexico’s private pre-K providers are valuable partners who also provide mostly high-quality pre-K. However, teachers in most private centers are paid low wages — so low they often rely on food stamps and Medicaid.

Wages need to be part of the universal pre-K conversation because we need professional and educational standards to be aligned to the highest quality, regardless of whether a child is in a public or private program. In New Mexico, the highest standards are at the public schools. Therefore, if we want to achieve universal pre-K where every child benefits from a high-quality classroom, we have to have a conversation about the true costs of providing high-quality classrooms in every corner of the state.

New Mexico’s Public Education Department is leading this conversation. Public school teachers were given well-deserved raises in the last legislative session. This increased the cost of providing pre-K, so PED will be able to serve about 200 fewer children with the funding that was allocated for the coming year. Unfortunately, PED already has a waitlist for full-day pre-K of 1,000 children across the state who don’t have access to pre-K. PED is asking for supplemental funds to fill this gap. We encourage the governor and the Legislature to approve this funding request. It’s urgent and it brings us one step closer to universal pre-K.

This is also an opportunity for private providers and lawmakers to reassess the true costs of providing pre-K to 3- and 4-year-olds, with the goal of providing wage parity with the public schools. This will increase the amount that’s needed for reimbursements, but paying teachers well is the right thing to do, and it will ensure a professionalized workforce and the high-quality education that results in the best outcomes that our children deserve. As PED’s request is evaluated in the context of our current system, additional funds should be made available so CYFD pre-K can begin to address wage parity.

As we build out a stable and equitable plan to achieve universal pre-K through the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, we have the opportunity to think big. Let’s address the issues that are holding the system back from providing for every child, address the true costs of providing pre-K and provide funding in a way that’s truly equitable and reaches every child in every corner of the state. That’s the real promise of universal pre-K.

Stephanie Ly is president of AFT-New Mexico, and James Jimenez is executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children. The New Mexico Now Steering Committee includes AFT-NM, NGAGE, Progress Now New Mexico and New Mexico Voices for Children.