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Charitable groups craft plan for early childhood spending

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Josiah Espitia, left, and Santana Whitaker, both pre-K students at Youth Development Inc.’s Centro de Amor Head Start in Albuquerque, check out a book in December. (Marla Brose/Journal)

SANTA FE – New Mexico should consider appointing a high-level executive – perhaps a cabinet secretary – to oversee and coordinate the state’s efforts to help prepare young children for kindergarten and keep them healthy.

That was a recommendation Wednesday from a group of charitable foundations working to provide nonpartisan advice to the state Legislature on early childhood programs.

An executive in the governor’s office – or creation of a standalone state department, headed by a cabinet secretary – could play a critical role in ensuring the state spends its growing investment in early childhood programs effectively, avoiding duplication and targeting the gaps in service.

The New Mexico Early Childhood Funders Group also suggested taking a step-by-step approach to boosting the funding for pre-kindergarten and similar programs, with increases of about $16 million to $20 million a year over five years.

The recommendations are part of a business plan the group plans to release – a guide intended to help the state spend wisely.

“We need to ensure we’re investing in the highest quality programs we possibly can,” said Katherine Freeman, president and CEO of the United Way of Santa Fe County.

To that end, the plan suggests incremental increases in funding – with some of the money dedicated to educating and training the workforce of employees who care for young children, a key to providing high-quality programs.

Freeman was one of several community leaders who addressed the Legislative Finance Committee on Wednesday.

The presentation comes as New Mexico ramps up spending on a variety of early childhood programs, including childcare for parents who work, pre-K, home visiting programs for parents with young children and similar services.

Starting July 1, the state will have more than doubled its spending on early childhood programs over an eight-year period, to roughly $306 million a year.

But there’s still tremendous need for services in a state where 36 percent of young children live in poverty – the highest rate in the country, according to the Early Childhood Funders Group.

Some Democratic lawmakers have been pushing to tap into New Mexico’s largest permanent fund to generate more money for early childhood programs, but those proposals have run aground in the Senate.

Wednesday’s presentation focused on how to make sure the state’s growing investment – wherever the money comes from – is spent effectively.

Patrick Dee, managing director of U.S. Bank Wealth Management, told lawmakers that early childhood programs have been shown to result in higher rates of graduation, higher earnings, reduced cases of abuse and neglect, and less teen pregnancy, among other benefits.

But the programs in place now “reach just a fraction of the children that could benefit from this,” Dee said.

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