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Editorial: N.M.’s kids need data to drive investments

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If it takes a village to raise a child, it’s going to take the whole state to raise a literate one.

Make that a state with home visits that – God help us – are necessary to teach parents to talk to and play with their children.

A state with preschool programs that actually deliver positive, lasting, measurable results.

A state with early childhood care that is as good for the brain of the child being cared for as it is for the schedule of the parent dropping him/her off.

Yes, that will take more money. And we should spend it. But it is not going to take a raid on state coffers to fund decades-old programs that have yet to improve a child’s lot in life or the next flavor of the month to address abysmal education statistics.

It’s past time to fight data with data. And that data shows that earlier is better when it comes to investing in education, that the first three years of life are key.

New Mexico spends almost half of its budget on K-12 public education and has increased the early childhood budget to nearly $200 million. New Mexico ranked among the top states with the highest percentage increase of spending on these programs in 2012-13. Yet around half of N.M. students can read and do math at grade level, three out of 10 don’t graduate on time and around 10,000 drop out each year.

A new Legislative Finance Committee report shows the $95 million the state spends annually on child care assistance and the $61 million the federal government spends each year on Head Start have done nothing to boost third-grade reading and math scores.

The Children, Youth and Families Department says the purpose of taxpayer-funded child care is to “keep families working,” not educate kids, and most Head Start providers refused to cooperate with the LFC. There are already calls to spend more on these programs. But New Mexico needs to spend more wisely.

That was the underlying message in the LFC report as well as this year’s application for millions in federal Race to the Top funding; New Mexico’s Public Education Department proposed a statewide database on early learning to track students and programs and having CYFD, PED and the state and Health department collaborate instead of working separately on the same problems. In addition, Utah State University is three years into a five-year longitudinal study of New Mexico’s K-3 Plus program, which has students in school five weeks early; preliminary results show positive effects on reading, writing and math.

The LFC report said 4-year-olds in Pre-K have higher proficiency rates in standardized reading and math tests than those who were in child care or weren’t enrolled. Around 9,600 low-income children were in Pre-K this year, while around 20,000 received child care assistance, aka babysitting.

And in January the state will get a report on the effectiveness of its $8 million investment in home visits for an estimated 2,100 families. State Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera has said the goal should be to “make sure we’re seamless in our expectations and how we work together in a given program.”

Those expectations should be educating the state’s young children, be it via getting their parents to talk to them and develop language skills, ensuring child care workers can at minimum sing the ABC song and focus on fine motor skills to facilitate writing later on or classroom settings that make a difference past third grade.

New Mexico has a long and compassionate, if not wise, history of investing in its children. Tens of millions of dollars spent on three-tier teacher licensing and a federal Reading First program delivered little more than the feeling we were doing something for our kids. It amounts to a bad souvenir along the lines of “My state spent billions and I can’t read this lousy T-shirt.”

Our children deserve real investments in their education that translate into literacy, employability and self-sufficiency. When the Legislature convenes Jan. 21, it is vital lawmakers remember that, and temper the desire to do something with data that makes their actions matter to the kids they want to help.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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