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State early childhood department proposed

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque

SANTA FE – A proposal headed to the Legislature next month would establish a Cabinet-level department to oversee New Mexico’s burgeoning investment in early childhood programs that aim to prepare youngsters for school and promote healthy brain development.

State Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, announced the legislation, Senate Bill 22, during a news conference in Albuquerque.

The 55-page measure would create the Early Childhood Education and Care Department – an agency that would focus on programs for children through age 5.

Services that are now spread across a few state departments would be consolidated under the new agency. Its duties would touch on home visiting programs, child care licensing, pre-kindergarten, prenatal services and education.

Padilla said the department would help ensure the state is spending on programs that show results and would make it easier to identify gaps in the system and the need for expansion.

“We’ll have someone we can hold accountable for this function,” he said in an interview. “We’ll have a consistent approach.”

The governor would appoint the secretary of early childhood development and care, subject to confirmation by the Senate. An assistant secretary would focus on providing services in Native American communities and working with tribal governments.

Padilla’s legislation calls for a $2.5 million appropriation to help establish the early childhood department.

The programs overseen by the department, he said, would be a powerful tool for combating child abuse and setting youngsters on the right path.

“This is the earliest opportunity we have to truly turn New Mexico around,” Padilla said. “It sets the child up for the whole rest of their life.”

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce endorsed creation of the department, in addition to a plan to increase spending on early childhood programs over time. The chamber said it still opposes a separate proposal that calls for tapping into New Mexico’s largest permanent fund to pay for early childhood programs.

The new department, in any case, would provide the kind of management and oversight needed to help ensure the money is spent effectively, the chamber said.

“It simply makes sense to house our early childhood programs in one place, where services can be coordinated and tailored to meet the needs of individual families and children,” the chamber’s president and CEO, Terri Cole, said in a written statement.

New Mexico has more than doubled its spending on early childhood programs over an eight-year period, to roughly $306 million this fiscal year.

The increase coincides with a growing consensus inside the Roundhouse that early childhood programs should be a priority as New Mexico tries to interrupt the cycle of poverty by helping low-income families and young children.

The legislative session begins Jan. 15.

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