by Damien Willis, Las Cruces Sun-News

LAS CRUCES – Lawmakers and candidates met Wednesday with voters to discuss early childhood education, and ways they hope to improve New Mexico’s 49th-in-the-nation ranking for child well-being. The event featured three speakers, comments from the candidates and elected officials, and a brief question and answer session. The focus of the town hall was whether the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund should be used to fund early childhood development and education.

“They like to say that the permanent fund is a ‘rainy day fund,’” said Amber Wallin, Kids Count director for New Mexico Voices for Children. “Well, it’s rainy. It’s raining. It’s pouring on our children. Dire straits are upon us. We have the worst child poverty in the nation.”

In Doña Ana County, 37 percent of children live in poverty, 40 percent come from families in which parents lack secure employment, and 32 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds attend preschool, according to statistics compiled by New Mexico Voices for Children. In these statistics — and many others — Doña Ana County fares worse than the state average.

“We have to do better and we know what works,” Wallin said. She advocated for using 1.5 percent of the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund to invest in a variety of early-childhood initiatives.

Cindy Corona, associate director of NGage New Mexico, said more work needs to be done to create a more comprehensive system.

“We need to identify what services are available, what needs to be available, and who is not being served,” Corona said.

The LGPF each year provides more than a half-billion dollars in benefits to New Mexico’s public schools, universities and other beneficiaries. The idea of tapping into the LGPF to fund early childhood education isn’t new. This year, state representatives’ proposals to do so stalled in committee. The issue is usually split along party lines — Democrats support funding early childhood education through the fund while Republicans are more inclined to seek funding from other sources.
Candidates weigh in

Ray Jaramillo, who is running for state representative in District 35, said he supports using the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for a portion of the funding, but other funding streams must be explored.

“This is a bold statement, but I think we need to consider legalizing marijuana,” Jaramillo said. “That would generate millions and millions of dollars in revenue for the state — just look at Colorado — which could be invested in early childhood education.”

Charles Wendler, the only Republican candidate who attended the nonpartisan event, said early childhood education was “near and dear” to his heart, as a former educator and school administrator. He said he would consider tapping the permanent fund for early childhood initiatives, but that parents should be more involved in the education of their children.

Wendler is running against State Sen. Mary Kay Papen for the District 38 seat; both are running unopposed in the primaries. Papen, who also attended Wednesday’s town hall, said she doesn’t support using the LGPF to fund early childhood education, but believes it must be funded somehow.

“I believe we can find other ways of finding the money,” Papen said. “But we really need to have a thoughtful discussion of what it means to ‘fully fund’ early childhood education. We need to identify how much money it is going to take.”

Oscar Vasquez Butler and Jeff Steinborn, both of whom are running as Democrats in the State Senate District 36 race, were also in attendance. Butler is the chairman of AVANCE, a nonprofit community organization, and said he supports letting voters decide whether the permanent fund should be used as a source of funding.

“Do they want to use the permanent fund, or would they rather tax themselves? Either way, we must invest in our children,” he said.

Steinborn said he supports using the permanent fund for early childhood initiatives.

“Not only do I support it, I think it must be done,” Steinborn said. “And the permanent fund is the best source of funding for it. We need to be bold in how we address the problems in our state.”

State Sen. William Soules, who is unopposed in the District 37 Democratic primary but will face Ceil Levatino in the general election, said he has changed his mind on using the permanent fund to pay for early childhood education.

“I used to be against it, but now I support it — because it must be done, and no one has been able to come up with a better way,” Soules said. “We need to stop talking about how to close the achievement gap, and start talking about how we can prevent it. Using the permanent fund at the levels we’ve discussed won’t deplete it; it will slightly slow the fund’s growth.”

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, who is running unopposed in District 31, told the crowd that he fully supports using the permanent fund for early childhood initiatives.

“We see the statistics all the time,” he said. “New Mexico is in a terrible place, and something must be done.”

Former Las Cruces City Councilor Nathan Small is running for State Representative District 36. Small is unopposed in the Democratic primary but will face Andy Nuñez in the general election.

“As the son of educators and a product of the public schools, this is a topic I care about deeply,” Small told the crowd. “To me, it seems quite logical to expand the use of the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which is to be used for education, to include early childhood.”

Small said more needs to be done to address equity in education, and early childhood initiatives are a great place to begin.

“Should the quality of education that you receive really depend on the ZIP code you grow up in?” Small asked.

Three more early childhood education voter town hall events are planned for southern New Mexico in May, including events in Deming, Anthony and Truth or Consequences. The events are sponsored by SWOP Action, New Mexico Voices for Children, HELP-NM, NGage New Mexico, OLÉ, AVANCE and the Borderlands Writing Project.

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