by Robert Nott and Cynthia Miller, Santa Fe New Mexican

A new report on early childhood education lauds New Mexico, a state that regularly ranks at the bottom of national surveys on child well-being, for increasing its investments in pre-kindergarten programs and increasing its pre-K enrollment.

The state moved up 10 spots in the 2015 State Preschool Yearbook, a report by the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University. New Mexico improved to 18 from 28 among states, largely because of its commitment to increasing funds for early education — one of the most divisive political issues in the state. Eight states, the report noted, weren’t included because they have no state preschool programs.

The report comes as state officials and early childhood advocates told lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee about plans to continue expanding the state’s pre-K programs.

The State Preschool Yearbook was released Thursday. According to an early draft obtained by The New Mexican on Wednesday, New Mexico PreK, the state’s early education program, met eight out of 10 minimum quality standards set by the institute. The report also gives the state credit for supporting dual-language programs at the pre-K level.

In 2014-15, New Mexico had 8,397 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K programs — up 9.4 percent, or about 725 students, from the previous year. Total spending on pre-K, based on 2014-15 data, was almost $40 million.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s spokesman, Mike Lonergan, said Martinez “remains committed to giving our kids a head start in their education. Since she took office, we are putting more money into education than ever before, with more dollars going directly into the classroom.”

“New Mexico has made substantial progress,” said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute of Early Education Research. “And certainly, when you look at other states in the region, New Mexico stands out for investing in these programs.”

New Mexico PreK didn’t serve 3-year-olds in 2014-15, but did begin a pilot half-day program for 3-year-olds in the current school year — another positive step, Barnett said.

Still, he said, one challenge for the state is a pay gap for pre-K teachers: “[Make] sure that teachers, whether they are in a private or public setting, are paid on par with the K-12 teachers who have the same qualifications. Otherwise you will see a brain drain.”

Claire Dudley Chavez, executive vice president for policy and stakeholder engagement for the United Way of Santa Fe County — which runs a pre-K program in Santa Fe and also is leading statewide efforts to create early education policy — told the Legislative Finance Committee on Wednesday that the state now offers half-day pre-kindergarten to about 11,000 3- and 4-year-olds and full-time services to about 2,000 kids.

She touted a range of benefits that preschool provides, from improved social skills and a decreased need for special-education services to increased reading scores and higher wages in adulthood.

Many studies also have shown an economic benefit to communities that invest in early education. According to a December 2014 report issued by the White House, “expanding early learning initiatives would provide benefits to society of roughly $8.60 for every $1 spent.” Those studies also argue that children who attend pre-K programs enter kindergarten better prepared and thus stand a better chance of achieving academic success at a young age.

Monique Jacobson, secretary of the state Children, Youth and Families Department, the lead agency on early education, told the Legislative Finance Committee on Wednesday that increasing pre-K programs — particularly for 3-year-olds — also is a way to improve the state’s rating on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book, a nationwide report on child well-being.

New Mexico generally ranks at or near the bottom in that report, in large part because 30 percent of the state’s children are living in poverty — the highest rate in the nation — but also because it fares poorly on education measures such as student proficiency scores and graduation rates.

Veronica C. Garcia, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, which contributes data to the annual Kids Count report, said that while the news about the state’s improvement in this week’s national pre-K study is “great,” she said more than 60 percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year olds are still not attending preschool.

“New Mexico — and the entire nation — has a long way to go before we’re fully invested in providing the best early childhood development, care and learning to our children,” Garcia said.

The 2015 State Preschool Yearbook says that while several states, including New York and New Mexico, made significant gains, progress is slow and uneven nationally, and quality standards are particularly low for pre-K programs in some of the nation’s largest states, such as California, Florida and Texas.

As a result, the report says, it will take 150 years at the current rate of progress for the nation to reach 75 percent enrollment in state pre-K programs, even just for 4-year-olds.

Barnett said that is because preschool is “still seen as a nicety, not a necessity” in many states.

Dudley Chavez sees it differently: “We want to make full-day New Mexico PreK available to every single 3- and 4-year-old in our state whose family wants it,” she told the Legislative Finance Committee.

In an interview Wednesday, Dudley Chavez attributed the state’s improvement in the National Institute of Early Education Research report to strong pre-K support from both Martinez and state lawmakers.

“The longer children can be in high-quality early learning environments, the better off they will be,” she said.

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