Early childhood measure advances

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SANTA FE – A proposal to expand early childhood programs – by pulling more from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund – moved a step closer on Friday to reaching voters.

But it still must clear at least two more hurdles, including skeptics on the Senate Finance Committee, before landing on the ballot this year.

The proposed constitutional amendment, nonetheless, maintained its momentum on Friday, winning a recommendation of approval from the Senate Education Committee after about two hours of testimony and debate.

House Joint Resolution 1 passed 5-3 along party lines, with Democrats in favor.

Dozens of supporters told senators that early childhood services – such as pre-kindergarten and home visiting programs for new parents – are an effective way to help kids arrive at school ready to learn.

Marc Space, superintendent of Grants/Cibola County Schools, said his teachers can easily tell which children have attended preschool and which haven’t. Some students arrive at kindergarten without knowing colors, putting them behind many of their peers from the start, he said.

“These children don’t know how to play socially,” Space said. “They don’t know how to hold a pair of scissors. … This is all about opportunity.”

Opponents said the proposal to increase distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund would slow the growth of a revenue source that already provides hundreds of millions of dollars for public schools, universities and other beneficiaries. Eventually, they said, the state would have less money for those purposes than if the fund were left alone.

State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Libertarian, said the $17 billion permanent fund is supposed to help New Mexico even after the supply of oil and gas – a major source of state revenue – is exhausted.

“Someday,” he said, “we’re going to quit adding to the fund.”

The proposal would amend the state Constitution and increase annual distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund by 1 percentage point, from 5 percent to 6 percent.

It would generate about $150 million a year that would go to school districts and tribes to provide services to children before they reach kindergarten. Another $26 million would go to other beneficiaries of the permanent fund.

Democratic Sen. William Soules, a retired teacher and principal from Las Cruces and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said early childhood programs help ensure that youngsters are ready to benefit from the K-12 school system.

Nonpartisan analysts working for the Legislative Finance Committee say pre-kindergarten programs have resulted in academic gains sticking with children through at the least the fifth grade.

“If that money is invested in our children,” Soules said, “it’s an investment that can never be taken away.”

The House approved the proposal on a 36-33 vote earlier this week. It’s co-sponsored Democratic Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Stephanie Garcia Richard of White Rock.

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