Early childhood education is a wise and necessary investment

Carla Sonntag, president and founder of the New Mexico Business Coalition, in a recent Journal op-ed “Calls to raid permanent fund should be resisted” unfortunately misrepresents and misunderstands the proposed constitutional amendment to fund early childhood.

The legislation she claims “special interest” groups (e.g. preschool teachers, nurses, parents) are supporting is a constitutional amendment (SJR2 and HJR10 this session) that would allow voters to decide whether to invest 1.5 percent of the $15 billion permanent fund, all of which would go to providing early care and education to kids 0-5 who are eligible but currently denied access.

Sonntag mistakenly argues that this additional early childhood funding would be used for health care for young children, which is already covered by Medicaid. In fact, most if not all of the proposed funding would be used for education as required by the state Constitution.

Sonntag cites legal opinions by former Attorney General Gary King and the Rodey Law Firm that proposed uses would be unconstitutional. Supporters of the constitutional amendment have made it clear repeatedly that they understand and support funding being used only for approved early childhood programs.

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Sonntag’s view is in stark contrast to some of the nation’s leading business and economic voices, including Nobel laureate economist James Heckman, of the University of Chicago and former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Both have argued that investments in early childhood programs provide a higher and more responsible return on investment than the billions we are spending on kids who can’t read, lack workforce skills, enter the corrections system or otherwise fall through the cracks.

Heckman, considered one of the leading national and international experts on human capital formation, has repeatedly argued that investment in children 0-5 is one of the most effective workforce and economic development strategies a community can undertake.

Sonntag’s views are also in stark contrast to most New Mexico voters.

Polls and focus groups have shown that the overwhelming majority of New Mexico voters support using a small increase in the annual distribution from the permanent fund for early childhood. The proposed legislation would place the issue on the November ballot for all New Mexicans, not just special interest groups, to decide.

Finally, Sonntag claims that using any of the permanent fund for early childhood would constitute “a war on our children.” The real “war on our children” has been the one waged by some special interest groups, such as the newly formed New Mexico Business Coalition, who have used much of their political influence to block additional investments in our youngest and most vulnerable children.

These groups hire lobbyists to oppose any significant funding for the more than two-thirds of New Mexico’s kids without access to either home visitation, childcare or Pre-K programs.

Compare this to the more than $1 billion in tax incentives, subsidies and other benefits special interests representing corporations have lobbied for and received over the past few years from the Legislature.

While some business leaders and state policymakers plead poverty when it comes to funding early childhood programs, many have supported giving millions away every legislative session to corporate special interests. Despite the state’s current reported budget crisis, more of such corporate subsidies are proposed this session.

Make no mistake about it, it is corporate lobbyists and the special interests they represent who are responsible for blocking legislation that would allow New Mexico voters to decide whether to invest more of the permanent fund in early childhood.

Voters should make their voices heard by urging their legislators to put the issue on the November ballot. Our state’s future – and a generation of 0-5-year-olds – depend on it.

Eric Griego is a former executive director of N.M. Voices for Children.

 

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