For some time now, New Mexico has been in the midst of a child care crisis. A tough economy led to this crisis but a lack of leadership from Santa Fe has made it worse. Over the last year, lawmakers have drastically cut the amount of child care assistance available to low-income working parents, while increasing their co-pays by 10%. The eligibility level was cut in half. Now, you have to live below the poverty level to qualify. If you work full time at the minimum wage, you earn too much. The state also cut payments to providers by 4 percent and, as a result, dozens of child care centers around the state have had no choice but to go out of business. More than 4,500 children are on the waiting list to get child care assistance with no hope of getting served this year.
The recession hasn’t just picked on little kids. College students are also facing higher tuition and fees, as you’ve no doubt seen in newspapers around the state. What hasn’t been reported, though, is this interesting and very germane fact: high-quality child care costs more than tuition at UNM. That’s right. Added up week over week, parents sending an 18-month-old to child care while they work pay more than the cost of tuition to send an 18-year-old to UNM. There is one very important difference: while state child care assistance is the only additional support available to parents of young children, college students and their parents have a wide variety of other tuition assistance options.
To put it another way: There is no lottery scholarship for babies. No athletic scholarships for toddlers. No Pell grants. No deferred payment plans. Not even guaranteed student loans. When it comes to the educational development of your kids under age five, you are on your own. You might want to give them Harvard-quality early childhood development experiences, but most parents can barely afford keeping their kids in safe care while they are at work.
So why make this comparison? After all, college is important—it educates the doctors, engineers, and entrepreneurs of the future, right? Right. But so does high quality child care. And what happens (and doesn’t happen) in early childhood is a huge determining factor for whether a child will be able to become that future doctor, engineer or entrepreneur.
The science tells us that learning begins at birth and that about 85 percent of brain development occurs in the first few years. This development is the architecture upon which later learning will be built. Children who’ve had high-quality, nurturing early childhood experiences do better in school than kids who had television as their primary babysitter. Kids who do better in school are more likely to graduate and go on to college.
Yet we spend 60 percent of our state’s budget on education after the age of 5, when brain development has slowed significantly, and less than 1 percent on those important earlier years. Any business person would tell you that we’ve got our investment strategy upside down!
It’s time that we, as a state and a nation, start raising the standards for our youngest children. Learning begins at birth and so should our investment in education. It’s time to turn our education funding upside down. It’s time to change our investment strategy. It’s time to invest in kids now!
Bill Jordan is NM Voices’ Policy Director.