by Cynthia Miller, The New Mexican
June 21, 2016

An annual data analysis that has come to be a state-by-state report card on the welfare of the nation’s children — and is often cited in New Mexico’s partisan battles over educational reform — again ranks New Mexico near the bottom, even dropping the state to last place when it comes to educational measures and the number of kids living in poverty.

But the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2016 Kids Count Data Book, expected to be released Tuesday, also shows the state is slowly making gains in some key areas, such as health care. While New Mexico was ranked 49th overall in the report for the third year in a row, behind Mississippi, it rose from 48th the previous year to 44th in children’s health, an improvement that’s largely because of an increase in the number of kids enrolled in the state’s Medicaid system.

“That shows us that policies do make a difference,” Veronica García, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Voices for Children, which runs the state’s Kids Count program, said in an interview Monday.

Kyler Nerison, a spokesman for the state Human Services Department, which oversees New Mexico’s Medicaid program, touted the state’s efforts under Gov. Susana Martinez to expand Medicaid eligibility under the federal Affordable Care Act, a move that New Mexico Kids Count Director Amber Wallin directly credited for the significant drop in uninsured children, to 7 percent in 2015 from 9 percent in 2014.

“Some 35,000 kids who were already eligible for Medicaid but who were not signed up received insurance when their parents enrolled,” Wallin said in a news release on the Kids Count report late last week. “States that didn’t expand Medicaid didn’t see such a dramatic increase in children with health insurance.”

Some officials with the Martinez administration used the report’s release as an opportunity to reiterate the Republican governor’s key education reform initiatives — such as ending what Mike Lonergan, the governor’s spokesman, called “the failed practice of social promotion, which passes kids into the next grade even when they cannot read.”

State Public Education Department spokesman Robert McEntyre issued a similar comment: “Ultimately, the report is yet another reminder that Senate Democrats need to embrace reform and end the failed practice of passing our kids from grade to grade when they cannot read.”

Even as the state’s ranking slipped in education, as well as economic measures, the report shows some growth in these areas.

New Mexico Voices for Children noted in its news release last week that the state’s child poverty rate fell to 30 percent in 2014 from 31 percent the previous year. And the data show a rising number of children enrolled in preschool programs and a higher percentage of fourth-graders achieving proficient scores on a national reading test.

“We’ve tripled our funding for pre-K and doubled enrollment,” McEntyre said in his email.

But some say the spending still isn’t enough.

García said Monday the Kids Count Data Book can be a “double-edged sword” for a state like New Mexico that consistently fares poorly on such reports and struggles to move up in rankings as other states progress more quickly. Those aiming to improve child well-being in the state can’t become “complacent” about the lousy statistics that are often repeated, or become “hopeless,” she said.

But she decried New Mexico’s slow gains, saying that if the state continues to build its early education program at the current rate, it will take 150 years to ensure that every child has access to preschool.

“If we want to be competitive nationally,” she said, and able to draw new businesses that could help ease the high rate of poverty that looms behind other problems for children and families in the state, “then we have to take bold measures.”

García said she believes the state must dedicate a portion of revenues from its multibillion-dollar state trust land endowment, the Land Grant Permanent Fund, to early childhood education. She was referring to a controversial funding effort by Democrats in the state Legislature that has failed to gain traction year after year in the face of opposition from state Republicans.

State Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, one lawmaker who has long been behind the funding effort, said Monday evening that he sees a surge in early childhood education funding as the solution to a number of problems in the state’s cycle of poverty. Studies show it can raise achievement levels, lower the dropout rate and build a stronger workforce, he said, while lowering the number of people behind bars, and the rates of domestic violence, drunken driving and teen pregnancy.

He hasn’t given up his fight. In the 2017 legislative session, Padilla said, he will propose a new plan that would put $275 million a year into early child programs.

Padilla’s revamped plan still calls for using 1 percent of revenue from the state trust endowment to raise about $140 million for child care, from prenatal to age 5, but it would raise another $110 million a year through new energy-related taxes — for instance, a penny per gallon on gasoline and a penny per unit of solar power and natural gas. The plan also would collect surplus funds from state departments, he said, putting $25 million a year into an early child endowment and $25 million into annual funding for child care programs that serve all families, regardless of their economic status.

By building a new permanent fund, he said, the state eventually could taper off its use of land grant endowment revenues.

Padilla, a businessman, said this aggressive investment in young children is needed to turn around the state’s economy — and improve child well-being.

Overall, the Kids Count Data Book shows gains in child welfare nationwide, particularly among teens.

“This generation of teenagers and young adults are coming of age in the wake of the worst economic climate in nearly 80 years, and yet they are achieving key milestones that are critical for future success,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation.

New Mexico saw some of those health-related improvements among teens, such as a continued drop in the teen birth rate and the percentage of teens who report abusing alcohol or drugs.

“It’s encouraging to see a decline in alcohol and cigarette use among our high school students,” state Health Department spokesman Kenny Vigil said in an email. “We’ve also seen a decline in childhood obesity. It’s been on a gradual downward trajectory since 2010.”

Sill, Vigil said, “While we’re making improvements in the health of our children, we recognize there’s a lot more work to do.”

Correction, June 21, 2016
Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following an error: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Mike Lonergan, the governor’s spokesman, made a comment on Gov. Susana Martinez’s reform initiatives, such as “the failed practice of social promotion, which passes kids into the next grade even when they cannot read.” The story should have said the initiative would end what Lonergan called “the failed practice of social promotion.”

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