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Editorial: Pre-K the right way

The latest news on New Mexico’s pre-kindergarten funding is a win-win for students, educators, advocates and budget hawks alike.

That’s because the Land of Enchantment has spent the last eight years:

  • Steadily ramping up its pre-K funding, from $6.18 million in the 2011-’12 school year to $33.63 million in the 2018-’19 school year – an impressive 444 percent increase.
  • Steadily getting more 4-year-olds enrolled in quality early childhood education, from 2,380 in 2011-’12 to 6,786 in 2018-’19.
  • Steadily expanding the number of pre-K classrooms. Now 65 of New Mexico’s 89 districts, and six state charter schools, have NMPED pre-K programs. Eleven of those districts will be rolling out their pre-K programs for the first time this coming school year.

Because this expansion has been driven by data, our limited state funding has been and is still going to a program that puts more New Mexico 4-year-olds than ever in front of a certified New Mexico teacher to get the tools they need for school success. Pre-K teachers and programs are every bit as accountable as their elementary and secondary counterparts, with classrooms observed and outcomes measured to ensure our youngest students and our taxpayers are getting what they deserve.

The Legislative Finance Committee released a report last year showing NMPED pre-K programs improve math and reading proficiencies for low-income 4-year-olds and lower special education and retention rates.

And for those who still maintain this is not enough and advocate for an immediate raid on the Land Grant Permanent Fund to grow the program more quickly (candidates, are you paying attention?) know this:

Every single year, New Mexico school districts return between $2 million and $4 million in pre-K funding because the demand is just not there. This year the reversal is an estimated $1.5 million.

That’s in part because there are only around 24,000 4-year olds in New Mexico. Many are already in federally funded Head Start programs. Many are in private programs that get state funding from the Children, Youth and Families Department. (In fact many more kids in Farmington and Los Lunas go to Head Start or CYFD pre-K than state pre-K). Many are in programs in churches, homes and private businesses that families are able to pay for. And not every family believes their child needs pre-K.

So while there is most definitely a need to continue this steady expansion, the political talking point that we need $100 million annually, and right now, for universal pre-K ignores the reality that right now we can’t even spend $33 million a year.

And that’s because it takes some lead time to stand up a new pre-K classroom. These 11 districts – Animas, Aztec, Carlsbad, Clovis, Hagerman, Las Cruces, Los Alamos, Loving, Moriarty-Edgewood, Reserve and Silver – will offer pre-K for the first time this coming school year. They didn’t create their programs overnight. Carlsbad Municipal Schools Superintendent Greg Rodriguez says his team prepped for three years to make their new program happen. That included lining up a facility and teachers for the 350 students expected next year.

Meanwhile, at least 18 districts did not ask for any increase in pre-K funding.

And while NMPED allocates its pre-K funding based on proven enrollment data – that’s why Albuquerque Public Schools will receive less than it asked for, though it is still receiving a $1.5 million increase for a total of $5 million – Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski made it clear last week that no child will be turned away should more students show up than there are slots for. While around $2 million in monies that districts have returned will be added to the legislative appropriation to expand the program by $10 million this coming school year, Ruszkowski says there is still some reversion funding available to ensure districts receive more money if enrollment exceeds their allotments.

Going forward, Ruszkowski supports continued – and aggressive – growth of an extra $10 million a year. In that scenario, within five years every 4-year-old would have access to quality state-funded pre-K.

New Mexico under Gov. Susana Martinez and NMPED has made a steady, measured investment in a pre-K program that has a proven track record of delivering results. It has grown this program in the smartest possible way, ensuring dollars go to classrooms with certified teachers who have students they can prepare for the next 13 years of public school. And it has rolled any unused money into future expansions to honor legislative intent and PED commitment to quality, data-driven early childhood education.

Promising to throw a large sum of money in one chunk at a problem sounds good in an election year. But dedicating money that can be wisely implemented with accountability is a far more effective way to address the problem, and that truly makes a lasting investment in the state’s future.

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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