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State, federal agencies sometimes compete for 4-year-olds

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in the Searchlight New Mexico series, “Raising New Mexico,” which is aimed at shining a light on the dismal plight of many New Mexican children and what can be done to address the issue. Searchlight is a nonprofit investigative news organization.

ANTHONY – A tall chain-link fence splits the preschool campus at Anthony Elementary School in southern New Mexico: federally funded classrooms on one side, state-funded classrooms on the other.

The fence serves as a literal and symbolic divide segregating two sets of classrooms outfitted with the same child-size tables, chairs and toys; two sets of trained teachers; two playgrounds – and a competition for 4-year-olds.

As New Mexico has dramatically expanded early childhood education over the past decade, it has created a system that bars providers from mixing state and federal funds in the same classroom. It’s a policy – not a law – that effectively separates kids into rival programs, often divided by income.

Federally funded Head Start serves the lowest-income families in New Mexico, while the state programs serve families from a range of income levels.

Instead of cooperating, state and federal programs are often competing. One consequence is that New Mexico taxpayers are shouldering more of the cost of preschool programs, while federal money is being sent back to Washington.

“We have this crazy quilt pattern of some private day care for 4-year-olds, public preschool for 4-year-olds and federal Head Start programs that are all in competition,” says Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based think tank. “Trying to create a coherent system is a little bit like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

In a written statement, the state Public Education Department said, “There is more work to do in terms of sharing best practices, braiding funding and family engagement – all of which are possible as we continue to expand early childhood programming at an unprecedented rate.”

The agency said it is “actively working with districts” on the issue of braiding funding to serve more children. (See full statement below)

Ava Collazo and Genesis Villegas scoop seeds from a pumpkin as part of a class project at the Anthony Elementary School On Track pre-K program.

Ava Collazo and Genesis Villegas scoop seeds from a pumpkin as part of a class project at the Anthony Elementary School On Track pre-K program. (Andrés Leighton/Searchlight New Mexico)

Funding lost

The number of children attending federal and state preschool in New Mexico has increased dramatically in recent years – to more than 15,000.

But an investigation by Searchlight New Mexico found instances of federal preschool programs, known as Head Start, losing money or slots for kids. At the same time, the state is paying to educate more 4-year-olds in pre-Ks in private child-care centers or elementary schools.

A Head Start program in Doña Ana County returned $75,000 to Washington in 2015. In the two years following the startup of state pre-K in 2005, a Las Vegas, N.M., program sent back $850,000. Around the state, Head Start directors say, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost over the past decade, with millions at risk.

“I’ll be the first to say we need state pre-K,” says Joseph Griego, who runs Head Start at the West Las Vegas School District. “But what I can’t understand is why we as a state can’t seem to collaborate together to be able to serve the children. It shouldn’t be a competition.”

Some Head Start administrators have scrambled to “convert” 4-year-old preschool slots to programs for younger kids, which can be more expensive. Presbyterian Medical Services’ Head Start lost 56 slots last year; Las Vegas relinquished 60 slots in 2014; Albuquerque’s YDI gave up about 140 slots over the past four years.

Once the federal money or slots are lost, they’re gone for good.

“We had been hearing concerns about the funding for 3- and 4-year-olds,” says Michael Weinberg, early childhood education policy officer at the Thornburg Foundation in Santa Fe. “Are those different funding streams competing with each other? Were we reverting federal funds?”

The answer to both questions was “yes,” according to a 2017 study funded by Thornburg. The study found that collaboration between state and federal preschool programs is “inconsistent and fragmented.”

The mistrust between them dates back to a damning report on Head Start by the Legislative Finance Committee. The LFC report cast doubt on whether Head Start improved school readiness and recommended that the state assume control of Head Start funds, which go directly to providers.

While the rate of child poverty has risen in New Mexico over the past decade, Head Start now serves some 600 fewer children than it did 10 years ago, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

During the same period, state pre-K enrollments have grown. But nearly half of 4-year-olds and more than three-quarters of 3-year-olds in New Mexico aren’t attending any kind of state or federal preschool program, according to the NIEER.

“We need to make sure that certain communities aren’t being saturated while others are left unserved,” says Debra Baca, vice president of YDI Early Childhood Services, which runs both federal and state pre-K programs.

Funding conflict

Neuroscientists know there is a critical window in development between birth and age 5 that can determine a child’s chances of success later in life. The enrichment babies and toddlers get – or don’t – plays out in school attendance, test scores and graduation rates.

Hoping to close a stubborn achievement gap between low-income children and those from higher-income families, the Legislature approved funding for preschool in 2005.

The state set up a system of grants to day-care providers through the Children, Youth and Families Department as well as to schools through the Public Education Department. And the pot of money began to grow – to $54 million in fiscal 2018, more than double four years prior.

Gov. Susana Martinez has asked for $8 million more in fiscal 2019. The state currently serves about 8,400 children.

Head Start dates to 1965 and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. It specifically targets children living at or below the federal poverty level, about $24,600 a year for a family of four.

Head Start sent $85.6 million to New Mexico in fiscal 2017, including more than $18.5 million to tribal pre-K programs, according to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.

The program served 7,300 preschool children in New Mexico last fiscal year, down 7 percent from a decade ago, according to the administration.

No collaboration

Other states and localities have found ways to create high-quality preschool programs for all or most 4-year-olds using federal funds from Head Start. Oklahoma, Oregon, Georgia and Washington, D.C., all have channeled state and federal funding into the same classrooms.

Part of the problem in New Mexico is that pre-K program quality, particularly among Head Start and CYFD providers, is highly variable.

What is counterintuitive about the lack of collaboration and disputes over quality is that some organizations that run Head Start programs also run state-funded pre-K – just not in the same classroom. Likewise, at least one school district, Las Vegas, has a state grant for pre-K and a federal grant for Head Start, but the programs are kept separate.

Federal law doesn’t prohibit different funding sources being poured into the same classroom. The state legislation doesn’t say no to mixing funding streams either, says Alejandra Rebolledo-Rea, CYFD Early Childhood Services Division director.

With some exceptions, she confirmed, state policy prevents organizations from mingling state and federal funds or sharing classrooms or teachers.

The state’s policy breeds competition and effectively segregates low-income preschoolers from their middle- and upper-income peers, some say.

“It’s a good thing for all children to be integrated across income from an early age,” Baca says. “The laws and policies can change.”

‘A competition’

In Anthony – where the Head Start and state pre-K are separated by a fence – the Gadsden Independent School District was an early adopter of the state pre-K program.

Superintendent Travis Dempsey says as budgets tighten, the district may no longer be able to share its campus or utilities with Head Start.

“Part of what we’re struggling with is that you have a school that is growing,” he says.

Alejandro Vazquez puts together a puzzle of a young charro, or Mexican cowboy, at the Anthony Elementary pre-K school in southern New Mexico

Alejandro Vazquez puts together a puzzle of a young charro, or Mexican cowboy, at the Anthony Elementary pre-K school in southern New Mexico. (Andrés Leighton/Searchlight New Mexico)

“It is competitive,” says Amanda Gibson, president of the Association of New Mexico Head Start providers. She runs the Head Start program on the Anthony Elementary School campus.

“They are using state funds to pick up 4-year-olds and I’m losing slots,” she says.

The lack of collaboration frustrates lawmakers, according to Weinberg of the Thornburg Foundation: “Policymakers say, ‘Why would we give you more money for pre-K if all it is doing is taking away federal dollars?’ ”

For those who want to see state and federal dollars put to the most efficient use, the issue is equally vexing.

At a hearing in Taos last fall, LFC analysts said state pre-K programs offer “a positive return on investment for New Mexico taxpayers,” thanks to improved math and reading skills.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, a long-serving lawmaker from one of the state’s poorest regions, pointed out the importance of the millions in federal Head Start funding.

“How can we work together?” he asked.

No one in the room had an answer.

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