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Editorial: NM not making the most of current pre-K funding

In a state like New Mexico that regularly ranks as one of the worst in the country in child well-being, it defies logic we would be turning back federal dollars aimed at preschool programs for underprivileged children.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening according to reporting by the nonprofit investigative news organization Searchlight New Mexico. It’s just as baffling we’d consider raiding the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pump more money into state pre-kindergarten and other early childhood service programs at the same time we’re returning Head Start funding to Washington. State lawmakers are considering such a proposal; it passed the House on Tuesday.

Searchlight has launched a series of stories, dubbed “Raising New Mexico,” aimed at highlighting the plight of many New Mexico children and looking at what can be done. The series began running in the Journal and in other newspapers in January. Among the findings:

• The federal Head Start program – which serves children from low-income families – frequently competes for 4-year-olds with state early childhood programs.

• As New Mexico taxpayers shoulder more of the cost of preschool programs, federal money for Head Start is being sent back to Washington. Around the state, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost over the past decade, with millions at risk, say Head Start directors.

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

• And while state pre-K enrollments have grown dramatically during the same period, nearly half of 4-year-olds and more than three-quarters of 3-year-olds aren’t attending any state or federal preschool program, according to the institute.

Experts in child development have long known that the period between birth and age 5 is pivotal for children and can often determine a child’s chances of success later in life. Given that reality, it’s incumbent on us, as a state, to use every Head Start dollar available to help children. Sending those funds back to Washington borders on malpractice.

Veteran educators are baffled over why our state can’t figure out how to combine state and federal funds to provide a wider pre-K network for our state’s children.

“What I can’t understand is why we as a state can’t seem to collaborate together to be able to serve the children,” Joseph Griego, who runs Head Start at the West Las Vegas School District, told Searchlight. “It shouldn’t be a competition.”

It’s worth noting that while New Mexico policy generally doesn’t allow federal Head Start funding to be commingled with state early childhood funding, other states and localities have been able to commingle their state and federal funds to create HIGH-QUALITY preschool programs. We stress high-quality because that’s what we need – data-driven programs proven to get results.

The state Public Education Department acknowledges there is more work to do in terms of sharing best practices, braiding funding and family engagement. But PED says there are barriers that need to be overcome, noting PED pre-K programs don’t include 3-year-olds, and most Head Start programs and classrooms serve both 3- and 4-year-olds. Also, Head Start is family income-based, while N.M. pre-K serves children who live in communities with Title 1 schools.

PED says it has initiated discussions and is exploring ways to collaborate between the two programs. We hope those discussions are fruitful because New Mexico cannot afford to plunder future state funding while returning federal dollars, particularly when those are geared toward helping our children succeed in the classroom.

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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