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New Cabinet agency would grow pre-K right

New Mexico’s long-term economic growth depends upon our ability to educate our children well and prepare them for college and successful careers. Education is key to economic development. It can break the cycle of poverty in families and communities and produce the dynamic, innovative and skilled workforce that an economy needs to thrive.

Early childhood initiatives – including home visiting services, child care assistance and pre-kindergarten programs – provide important support to families and help ensure that young children are adequately prepared to succeed in kindergarten.

Kids need to be ready to learn from the start so they’re not playing catch-up throughout their time in school. There is no question that early learning programs – when held to high standards of quality – can close achievement gaps among students that form early in life and ensure more equal opportunity for all children.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce strongly supports the aggressive, but responsible, expansion of early childhood programs in New Mexico. These programs should continue to be delivered by public and private providers, should grow alongside the development of a robust well-trained early childhood workforce, and be required to adhere to high standards and meet performance expectations.

Fortunately, our state’s favorable fiscal position means we can make a sizeable, multiyear investment in expanding early childhood programs without taking additional money out of our permanent funds.

Additionally, the Chamber’s 57-person Board of Directors recently approved – on a unanimous vote – the establishment of a new Cabinet-level department to efficiently oversee, coordinate and manage all of the state’s numerous early childhood efforts.

Currently, these programs are spread across multiple state agencies, making coordination challenging and navigation by families very difficult. If you add together the current annual expenditures for all of our early childhood programs, it would eclipse the sixth-largest Cabinet department in state government. Combining these programs under one roof – especially as they continue to grow – simply makes sense.

This doesn’t have to increase the size of state government, either: other agencies can – and should – be combined this session to streamline and improve how state government operates.

In many respects, New Mexico is ahead of the curve on early childhood education. The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University found in its latest State of Preschool Yearbook that New Mexico meets nine out of 10 benchmarks for providing high-quality pre-K. For the second year in a row, the state ranks 20th in the nation for how much it spends per preschool student.

Even during our recent revenue downturn, funding for pre-K, child care assistance, and home-visiting programs continued to rise.

New Mexico has spent the last decade making growing, bipartisan investments in early childhood education, and there’s evidence that these investments are working to better prepare participating children.

We believe it’s time to go further and build upon this success.

As we do so, however, it is critically important that we commit to the development of a more robust pipeline of pre-K teachers.

A larger, talented early childhood workforce is not grown overnight; it takes tremendous collaboration with colleges and universities to recruit the right people into these programs and deliver top-notch instruction and preparation.

New Mexico should insist that we train and develop the highest quality early childhood practitioners in the country. This is a laudable and achievable goal. And, intensive outreach will be required to ensure that our early childhood programs are actually accessed by – and serve the needs of – the low-income and at-risk families in our state who would benefit from them the most.

The bipartisan commitment New Mexico has made to improving access and quality in early childhood programming is remarkable, and the momentum is only accelerating. We appreciate the emphasis Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has placed on this issue, and we anticipate similar commitment from legislators from both parties. If done responsibly and with a focus on quality, we can aggressively expand early childhood programs in our state and make a lasting impact on our children, their families and the broader economic well-being and future of New Mexico.

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