By Dillon Mullan, Santa Fe New Mexican
June 26, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE — Following last week’s release of a prominent state-by-state examination of child well-being that ranked New Mexico worst in the nation, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told a crowd of child advocates and educators the state has started to climb out from the bottom.

“We all saw the report last week,” Lujan Grisham said Wednesday at a conference organized by the nonprofit advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children. She was referring to the 2019 Kids Count Data Book, an annual report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which assesses how kids in each state are faring on several measures, from health care to education to poverty.

New Mexico has been ranked last in the report in three of the past seven years — something the governor called “unacceptable.”

But, she added, “The rankings are indicative of the lack of sustained investment in recent years. Those rankings are not indicative of what we are capable of and what we will become.”

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, touted several efforts this year by her office and the heavily Democratic New Mexico Legislature to help the state improve when it comes to child outcomes, such as raising the state’s minimum wage, increasing the Working Families Tax Credit and appropriating nearly $500 million in new funding for K-12 public schools.

The surge in funding was largely in response to a state District Court judge’s ruling last year in a landmark lawsuit accusing New Mexico of failing to provide an adequate education for some of its most vulnerable children: special-education students, Native American children, English-language learners and kids from low-income families. The judge found in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the state to come up with a plan to ensure those students received appropriate services and funding.

Lujan Grisham also noted a new Cabinet-level Early Childhood Education and Care Department, created through legislation this year, will overhaul the way the state provides services for infants and young children.

The effects of such changes, when it comes to come to boosting the state’s ranking on national reports like Kids Count, could be years away.

Most of the data in this year’s report is from 2017.

It ranks New Mexico 50th in education, 49th in economic security and 48th in health. There were a couple of bright spots: New Mexico improved its child poverty rate, which dropped to 27 percent from 30 percent, and its teen birth rate, which fell in 2017 to 28 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19 from 60 births per 1,000 teen girls in 2009.

James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, which compiles state data for the national Kids Count report and makes policy recommendations for improving child welfare, called New Mexico’s recent ranking “disappointing, but not terribly surprising” in a news release issued last week.

“It is going to take sustained investment to undo the damage from a decade of underfunding all of our child-serving programs and services like health care, child care and K-12 education,” Jimenez said in the statement. “We started making progress in 2019, but clearly much more needs to be done.”

At the New Mexico Kids Count Conference on Wednesday, Voices for Children Deputy Director Amber Wallin said the state needs to rethink its tax code to fund the wide range of social programs needed to fight poverty.

“In 2003, we gave away huge personal income tax cuts, about $500 [million] to $700 million a year,” Wallin said. “In 2013, we gave a huge corporate tax cut that was $250 [million] to $300 million. There you go. There’s $800 million to a billion dollars a year that could be spent on our kids.

“Now we have a surplus,” she added, “but we know that’s going to go away, so we have to raise revenue from sustainable sources in order to take back New Mexico.”

State Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo spotlighted the need for additional education funds last month, when she told lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee that $42.5 million appropriated for prekindergarten classrooms in public schools in 2019-20 fell short of demand by more than $7.3 million.

The money will fund spots for just over 6,500 students, she said, which is nearly 200 fewer than were served in 2018-19.

State Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, vice chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, who calls herself a doubter of the upcoming Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said, “We didn’t put enough funding, and I wish we focused on that instead of creating a new department.”

She added: “It’s not clear to me what the early childhood department will do.”

The new agency — which will consolidate all services for pregnant mothers and children up to age 5, now spread across several state departments — is expected to be fully staffed and operational by July 1, 2020. Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said the administration is still conducting interviews for a Cabinet secretary for the new department.

Six months into Lujan-Grisham’s administration, some parents said after her speech Wednesday they feel hope for the first time in recent memory.

“Progress isn’t going to be easy,” said Wilhemina Yazzie, a lead plaintiff in the education lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico. “There’s so many aspects to what we need to change from early childhood education to cultural and language relevance in all our schools.

“But this is just the beginning,” she added, “and we’re in great place to start moving out of 50th.”

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