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NM’s children need benefits of an early childhood education

Children in New Mexico are at a significant disadvantage. They are far less likely to experience a safe, secure and healthy childhood compared to their peers in other states, such as New Jersey, Utah and California.

New Mexico is one of five states in America that has a rural child poverty rate at or above 33 percent. That means one in three rural children across the state is growing up in poverty – three times the rate of wealthier states.

New Mexico also has the highest high school dropout rate in the country – one of the factors that contributed to Save the Children recently ranking New Mexico as 47th in the nation where childhood is most threatened.

We cannot ignore that year after year, New Mexico remains at the bottom of the list in the percentage of children living in poverty. Ninety-five percent of children never receive a home visit from a professional dedicated to their well-being. Seven thousand fewer children are receiving child care assistance than just a few years ago. Sixty percent do not have access to pre-K. All of these hard facts have a significant impact on the educational outcomes of New Mexico’s children.

Investing money now on quality early learning programs such as child care and preschool will enable us to save considerable amounts of money on law enforcement, prison cells, drug rehabilitation, Medicaid, unemployment benefits and other social service programs.

The earlier young learners have access to quality child care and preschool, the more likely they are to succeed in life. Years of research from economists, neuroscientists and educators shows that when young children are in group settings with other children, they learn how to play well together, build their vocabularies and take direction from other adults.

This ultimately builds confidence, and these children enter kindergarten ready to learn and are better prepared to meet national third-grade reading standards.

If elected governor, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham has pledged to make early childhood education a “hallmark” of her administration and work toward providing pre-K to every child in New Mexico. She would prioritize quality programs, teacher training and full-day programs – all critical components of an effective early childhood structure.

How is the state to fund early childhood education? Options include real tax reform which addresses deductions, exclusions, exemptions, credits and deferrals. Capital outlay reform might generate some savings. Increasing the cigarette tax and royalties from methane mitigation would generate some additional revenue. Eliminating redundant institutions, programs, agencies and programs might generate savings to be earmarked for education.

A report from Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist James Heckman shows the rate of return on investments in early childhood education for many children can be 13 percent per child, per year, due to improved outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity and reduced crime.

Lujan Grisham and I agree we need to set up New Mexico’s children for a successful life. We understand that by investing in children now, that investment will make New Mexico’s communities safer, build a stronger workforce and help New Mexico become a national leader in child well-being. Children may be a quarter of our population, but they are 100 percent of our future.