Sun-News Editorial Board, Las Cruces Sun-News
December 30, 2016

There has never been much debate at the New Mexico Legislature as to the benefits of a high-quality early childhood education program. The evidence is simply too overwhelmingly against those who would argue that there is no value to stimulating a child’s interest in learning well before they get to the start of elementary schools.

But despite that, there has long been a fierce debate when it comes to funding early childhood programs.

A report last week by Rutgers University’s National Institute of Early Education Research ranking Head Start programs in New Mexico as the worst in the nation should add new urgency to that ongoing debate.

The problem, according to the study, is that we’re trying to do this on the cheap. While 73 percent of all Head Start teachers nationally have a bachelor’s degree, only 36 percent do in New Mexico. A Head Start teacher in New Mexico will earn, on average, $10,000 a year less than a public school teacher. The average salary is $16,052 a year for Head Start assistant teachers and $26,524 for full teachers.

“If you are not a well-educated, well-prepared teacher, it’s almost impossible to do this,” said Steve Barnett, director of the Rutgers institute. “It can’t just be babysitting. It’s the quality of the one-to-one and small-group interactions with the teacher that is the primary driver of the cognitive part of the success, and that is the part too many programs aren’t getting. New Mexico is at the bottom of that pile.”

New Mexico ranked 49th overall in the latest child wellbeing survey by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and much of that low ranking was because of education, where we ranked dead last. The 59 percent of young children not in school in New Mexico, according to that survey was 6 percent worse than the national average.

New Mexico Voices for Children has advocated for three programs to lift us from the bottom of the national rankings: home visiting programs for first-time parents, increased funding for child care assistance and an expansion of the state’s existing Pre-K programs.

We also believe that better coordination is needed between federal programs like Head Start with state and local programs. The state has made efforts to address the issue, such as with the Pre-K program passed in 2005. Gov. Bill Richardson had sought $9 million in annual funding to provide services to 3,200 4-year-olds. The Legislature approved $5 million to provide service for 1,400 kids.

“It was tougher than I thought, both in concept and funding,” the former governor said at the signing ceremony for the bill, according to the Albuquerque Journal.

It won’t get any easier this year. The state’s financial condition was much stronger in 2005 than it is today. Actual revenue to the state continues to fall short of earlier projections, creating the need for further budget cuts.

Lawmakers must prioritize. We understand that funding is scare and tough decisions need to be made. But New Mexico simply must do better for its children. A state that fails to care for and prepare its youngest members for success is not one with a bright and hopeful future.

Copyright 2016, Las Cruces Sun-News (