by James Jimenez, Las Cruces Sun-News
Feb. 6, 2018

We agree wholeheartedly with Madeline Sanchez that parents are much better equipped to raise their children than the government. But all parents need support systems and too many New Mexico parents lack access to the resources families need to thrive. In addition, Ms. Sanchez expressed some commonly held myths about government services for families in her recent op-ed (“Offering same remedies for children that have failed in past,” Jan. 31, 2018) that I’d like to address.

First, two of the state-provided services that we advocate for are actually fairly new. They have also been shown to be effective, but they haven’t moved the needle for the whole of New Mexico because they still reach a very small percentage of our children.

The first is home visiting, which is a voluntary service where a highly trained health worker—usually a nurse or social worker—visits the home of a family that is expecting their first child. The home visitor provides valuable information about pregnancy, nutrition, etc. Once the baby is born, visits can continue for up to three years, should the family wish it. The home visitor shares tips for dealing with parenting frustrations.

These services are provided by local organizations who contract with the state. In Doña Ana County, providers include Ben Archer Health Center and Avance NM.

The state began funding home visiting in 2006 with a small pilot program, but didn’t start significantly investing in it until 2009. It wasn’t until 2013 that specific accountability standards that allow us to measure effectiveness were enacted. Nationwide and in New Mexico, home visiting has been shown to improve child health and education outcomes, and reduce the incidence of child abuse, among many other benefits.

In 2009 the state served a little more than 1,000 families. Today it serves nearly 5,000—a big increase but still just a tiny share of the more than 75,000 children in the program’s zero-to-three age range.

The second program is pre-kindergarten. Started in 2006, NM Pre-K served just 4-year-olds for the first several years, but recently added a pilot program for 3-year-olds. The report showed that “New Mexico PreK produces consistent benefits for children who participated in PreK, compared to those who did not, across all three years of the study.”

While the program started with just 1,500 children and has grown to reach nearly 10,000, it still has a long way to go before it reaches the more than 50,000 3- and 4-year olds in the state.

While these programs are fairly new, they both show great effectiveness. But we must remember that the children who were served in those first few years are still children—in other words, the programs are still too young to have made a wide-spread difference. They’ve also reached far too few of the state’s more than 500,000 children.

Long-term studies have shown that children who participate in similar child development programs achieve astonishing results.

The data from these studies is so compelling it led Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman to proclaim that there was no better investment that states could make than in high-quality early childhood care and education.

So, yes, Ms. Sanchez, the answer to improving outcomes for New Mexico’s children is more money, but money that is strategically directed at high-quality programs in every community. The return on investment, according to Heckman, is 13 percent—that’s per year, every year of the child’s life. This comes in the form of savings on remedial education, crime, and health care, as well as increases in tax revenue from higher incomes.

If you can find an investment with a higher rate of return, that has the added benefit of improving the state’s economy and quality of life for all, we’d love to hear about it.

James Jimenez is executive director for New Mexico Voices for Children

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