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Early childhood funding doubles over 7 years

MacArthur Elementary kindergartners, their parents and school staff welcomed the completion of the school’s kindergarten wing in 2016. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Over and over again, New Mexico lawmakers have rejected an ambitious proposal to tap into the state’s largest permanent fund and expand early childhood programs.

But supporters of early childhood services are enjoying some success anyway, gaining traction with increased funding from other sources.

In fact, New Mexico has doubled its spending over the last seven years on programs aimed at helping young children and their families.

The increase – from roughly $137 million in the 2012 budget year to $269 million this year – comes as proposals targeting the Land Grant Permanent Fund have failed in committee meetings or died without a hearing.

The spike in funding reflects a growing consensus inside the Roundhouse that early childhood programs should be a priority in New Mexico’s attempts to interrupt the cycle of poverty by helping low-income families and young children.

But the debate over whether to tap the Permanent Fund is certain to continue.

Even with the increased spending, nonpartisan analysts working for the Legislative Finance Committee estimate there will be about $111 million in “remaining statewide need” for home visiting, pre-kindergarten and a program that extends the school year – on top of the state’s plan to spend about $306 million next year, a healthy increase over this year’s $269 million in funding.

Lawmakers disagree over whether the high-profile push targeting the permanent fund has played a role in the budget increase for early childhood services.

Sen. Carlos Cisneros, a Questa Democrat and vice chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said the campaign may have motivated lawmakers to find money elsewhere and protect the permanent fund.

“It focused the attention on something that needed attention – something that had been neglected,” he said in an interview.

Gabriel Rivas peers through his tassels after receiving his graduation certificate from La Escuelita Early Childhood Center’s pre-kindergarten program in 2012. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

But Rep. Larry Larrañaga, an Albuquerque Republican who served as chairman of the House appropriations committee when the GOP held a majority in that chamber, said the permanent fund campaign wasn’t a factor at all.

Lawmakers are simply trying to fund programs that boost student achievement, he said, in a state where test scores lag.

“We’ve put the money where we think the infrastructure is ready to use it correctly and get a good return for the investment,” Larrañaga said.

Cisneros is undecided on the merits of the permanent fund proposal, which would allow voters to decide whether to amend the state Constitution to allow an annual distribution of 6 percent of the fund each year, rather than 5 percent.

But Republicans and conservative Democrats at the Legislature have repeatedly blocked the proposal, arguing that it would damage the health of a fund that already provides hundreds of millions of dollars for schools and other beneficiaries.

Taking more money out now, opponents say, would slow the growth of the fund and, after about 26 years, mean less for schools and other beneficiaries than if the fund had been left alone at the lower distribution rate.

Allen Sanchez, who has led the campaign in favor of the constitutional amendment, said the political debate inside the Roundhouse has evolved over the last eight years, as the proposal has been repeatedly pitched to lawmakers.

“Our state’s attitude has changed,” said Sanchez, president of the nonprofit group CHI St. Joseph’s Children and executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We’re embracing” early childhood programs.

Steady funding growth

Indeed, growth in the budget for early childhood programs has been steady, even as the state struggled with a budget crisis amid volatile oil and gas prices.

New Mexico expects to spend, for example, $23 million next year on home visiting programs – services generally aimed at helping expecting mothers and parents with young children. That’s up from just $2 million in 2012, according to LFC documents.

Also growing are a variety of other programs aimed at helping families and their children, from before birth through elementary school.

The state offers childcare assistance for low-income parents who work, pre-kindergarten to help prepare kids to start elementary school on equal footing, an extended school year at some schools and other services.

Altogether, spending for early childhood programs is expected to hit about $306 million next year, a 14 percent increase over this year, outpacing growth in the budget overall. The total includes a combination of state and federal money, not just the spending offered through New Mexico’s general fund for basic operations.

“I don’t think we’ve funded anything else with that kind of increase year after year,” said Larrañaga, the Albuquerque Republican. “Even despite the bad years that we had, we still took care of that.”

How much still needed?

But Sanchez and other supporters of withdrawing more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund say the increase is nowhere near enough, partly because the state has spent so little on early childhood in the past.

Legislative documents offer some estimates on the need for services.

For example, LFC analysts estimate that the $23 million earmarked for home visiting next year is roughly half what it would take to cover the total number of eligible clients.

Altogether, the analysts estimate about $111 million in unmet need for pre-K, home visiting and the K-3 Plus program that extends the school year at low-income or poor-performing schools. For other programs, they either don’t have a solid estimate or don’t forecast need beyond what’s already provided.

Sanchez and other supporters of the constitutional amendment say the LFC figure grossly underestimates the need for services in one of the poorest states in the nation. They put the unmet need in the range of $400 million.

Each group’s estimate relies on a variety of assumptions about how many people are eligible, who should be covered, what sorts of services should be provided and how much it would cost.

In any case, the latest proposal to increase distributions from the Land Grant Permanent Fund would generate about $150 million a year that would go to school districts and tribes to provide services to children before kindergarten. Schools or tribes could hire nonprofit groups to carry out home visiting programs, in addition to expanding their own pre-K or similar programs.

As part of the proposed amendment, another $26 million would go to other beneficiaries of the permanent fund.

The regular budget increases so far “are a drop in the bucket compared to the need,” said Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the constitutional amendment.

Cisneros and Larrañaga, in turn, say the traditional budget process is working.

“I think we have a responsibility to children statewide,” Cisneros said. “I think we’ve met it, not at the optimum capacity, but certainly to a high degree.”

Larrañaga said lawmakers “have done a very good job funding it this far.”

And not every program necessarily spends the money effectively, he said.

Analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee reported in August that child care assistance hasn’t shown evidence of boosting academic achievement. But they acknowledged it has other benefits for working families.

The analysts have been much more positive about some programs, such as pre-kindergarten and, if carried out correctly, K-3 Plus. When combined, in fact, the two programs appear to erase the “achievement gap” between different demographic groups when children participate in both, one analyst told the Legislative Finance Committee last year.

Analysts have also offered positive assessments of home visiting programs, saying they’ve been shown to effectively reduce child abuse and improve health. But the programs should be carried out as part of “evidence-based programming” that targets high-risk, high-need families, according to the August report to LFC.

There have been instances, too, when early childhood programs don’t spend all of the money they’re allocated and return some to the state for use the next year.

Helping young children

The increases for early childhood programs coincide with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s tenure. Her office didn’t respond to Journal requests for comment.

In any event, it’s clear New Mexico lawmakers are comfortable pushing more money into programs aimed at helping young children, even if skepticism remains about tapping into the permanent fund.

Advocates like Sanchez see the extra funding as progress, at least.

“If someone is asking you for soup,” Sanchez said, “I don’t care what kettle you get it out of.”