by Robert Nott, Santa Fe New Mexican
August 28, 2016

Children from low-income families who were enrolled in the state-funded New Mexico PreK program as 4-year-olds outperformed their peers a few years later, as third-graders, on the state’s standardized PARCC tests in 2015, a new legislative study says.

While only about 18 percent of New Mexico’s low-income third-graders who weren’t enrolled in the tuition-free PreK program showed proficiency in math and English language skills on the inaugural PARCC exams, the report says, 24 percent of low-income PreK kids were proficient in math, and 22 percent were proficient in reading and writing. Testing results for third-graders of all income levels show former PreK students had a higher proficiency rate in math, at 27 percent, compared to 25 percent for non-PreK students. Both groups scored equally in reading, at 25 percent.

The gains cited in the new early education report, presented to the Legislative Finance Committee last week, could add fuel to the debate on whether to sharply increase funding for preschool programs in a state that consistently ranks at or near the bottom in national education polls. But with the state’s budget outlook increasingly dire, even the biggest proponents of early education know the battle won’t be easy.

“Given where we are with the state and the budget crunch, this is a difficult conversation to have,” said Santa Fe Public Schools interim Superintendent Veronica García, who recently stepped down as executive director of the nonprofit child advocacy organization New Mexico Voices For Children, which has pushed for a surge in early education dollars.

The new in-state study — which also touts the benefits of other early child initiatives, such as home visiting services and the state’s K-3 Plus extended school year program — is the first to examine the progress of students in New Mexico PreK, which started in 2005 as a half-day program and has steadily grown. It now serves about 9,300 children and includes a full-day program for 4-year-olds and last year piloted a program for 3-year-olds.

Gov. Susana Martinez announced last month a $3.5 million boost to expand classes for 3-year-olds.

The program’s goal is to one day serve all 3- and 4-year-olds in New Mexico whose parents want to enroll their kids. National studies have shown that high-quality early education can help close achievement gaps, and the new report shows promising signs that New Mexico’s program is on track to do that. But the report presented to lawmakers says the state would need to increase PreK funding by almost $34 million to serve all of the eligible children.

García said the results of last week’s report are in line with national studies that “indicate that early intervention makes a world of difference. Those children are more likely to read by the third grade … and children reading in the third grade are more likely to go on and graduate from high school,” she said.

Katherine Freeman, CEO of the United Way of Santa Fe County, which helped launch New Mexico PreK through an initiative called the New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership, echoed García’s points.

“We are very happy that New Mexico has been able to validate the same kinds of results that other states have been able to validate around the value of pre-K,” she said.

Freeman, García and other advocates of early childhood education say investing in such programs saves money in the long run by cutting down on the number of teens who drop out of high school and struggle with with substance abuse, and by decreasing juvenile and adult incarceration costs.

But the state’s PreK program is now serving just over a third of the eligible children in New Mexico, according to the legislative report.

Freeman said she’d like to see the program reach every eligible 3- and 4-year-old in the state. “We could turn around a number of our educational issues with that,” she said.

But that’s going to cost money. Along with about $34 million to expand PreK, the report recommends additional funds to expand home visiting services, child care assistance and K-3 Plus. The total recommendation is for $101 million more per year over the fiscal year 2017 investment of about $245 million for such programs.

Asked whether the funding boost would be possible, Republican Rep. Jimmie Hall of Albuquerque, a member of the Legislative Finance Committee, said, “If we had the money, yes, but given our current financial situation, no.”

García said she gets that. One option, she said, would be to draw more money from the state’s multibillion-dollar state trust land endowment, the Land Grant Permanent Fund — an action many early childhood education proponents support but the governor and Republican lawmakers have staunchly opposed. Revenues generated from the endowment now help fund public schools.

Democratic Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque, another a member of Legislative Finance Committee, has tried to push for such action for several years. He still sees the Land Grant Permanent Fund as the best option.

“We don’t have the cash right now to meet the permanent need” to expand early childhood programs, he said. But “this report proves now more than ever that the only way to fully fund early childhood is from an additional one percent distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund.”

Padilla, who unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation last year to pull more money from that endowment, said he will try again in the 2017 session. He also plans to introduce a bill that would call for a one-penny tax on any transaction involving energy, be it solar power, natural gas or gasoline.

Legislative Finance Committee Chairman Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said Friday he knows there will be attempts to tap into the investment fund’s revenues. But he so far, he has worked to block them, and he won’t stop now.

“I’m going to protect that fund,” Smith said.

With the exception of some private providers, the Public Education Department and Children Youth and Families Department fund and oversee early childhood education programs in the state.

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