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Lawmakers debate upgrading pre-K

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Two competing bills in the Senate aim to improve pre-kindergarten services but offer vastly different ways of doing it, sparking a dispute over how the state should move forward.

Senate Bill 22 proposes creating a new department to house pre-K and all other early childhood services. Called the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, it’s billed as a way to align standards, assess pre-K expansion and consolidate services for the care and education of children from birth to age 5. Those services are now handled by several different state departments.

Crystal Tapia, executive director of Noah’s Ark Children’s Center, says potential legislative changes could result in private centers like hers closing. Senate Bill 298, which Tapia is opposing, aims to move 4-year-olds to public schools instead of the private centers. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Some opponents question the need for another layer of bureaucracy, and some insist that preschool programs for 4-year-olds should be moved to the state Public Education Department.

That’s what Senate Bill 298 would do. It’s intended to implement voluntary “universal pre-K” by expanding programs for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds over the next five years. It calls for keeping 3-year-old preschool programs under private operators and moving 4-year-old pre-school programs to PED, with the goal of allowing for more continuity of learning from age 4 through 12th grade.

Opponents say the changes as currently written will close minority- and women-owned private child centers if the 4-year-olds are moved.

Only one of the bills can be signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Supporters of SB 298 said they would be open to a possible compromise and marriage between the two bills, but SB 22’s sponsor isn’t on board.

The current New Mexico pre-K system, created in 2005, divides state funding between Children, Youth and Families Department and state Public Education Department programs. Federal Head Start programs are also offered throughout the state. And many of New Mexico’s young children are taken care of by relatives, or by small, in-home providers, many of whom do not receive any state money.

The desire to boost the care and education for young children has taken on new urgency as more studies prove the importance of high-quality learning at an early age.

And it’s further fueled by a landmark education lawsuit that requires the state to spend more on education, specifically homing in on the importance of early childhood learning. In addition, Gov. Lujan Grisham recommended an extra $60 million be put into pre-K expansion.

Senate Bill 22

Co-sponsor of Senate Bill 22 Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, told the Journal his proposal seeks to consolidate some functions of CYFD, PED, the Human Services Department and the Department of Health into the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which would oversee initiatives for children ages 5 and under.

“If we move those services from those four departments, this is going to drive a much more cost efficient way to the taxpayer to deliver those services,” he said.

He said staff and contracts – including contracts with private pre-K providers – would be transferred from those departments to the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, as would $325 million of the departments’ funding.

The bill, which is also sponsored by Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, is asking for $2.5 million in one-time money to set up the department.

All private child-care providers are expected to transition into the new department, as long as they meet benchmark standards set up by Early Childhood Education and Care Department, Padilla said.

“Their operations are going to continue, if they are already a certified, five-star service delivery option. If they are, then nothing is changing with them. If they aren’t, they are going to have to adhere to the quality standards that would now become statewide standards,” Padilla said.

One of the goals of the new department would be to access expansion for pre-K and other early education services across the state.

“We don’t even know right now what the size needs to be, where it’s lacking, because we deliver this in such different ways across state government and across three departments,” he said.

Under Senate Bill 22, the new department would keep the state’s current “mixed delivery” system, which equally funds public schools’ and private providers’ pre-K services, although the private providers would be licensed under the new department and not CYFD.

“We’ve had a lot of minority and women-owned businesses across the state that have sprung up all over the place, invested the capital dollars needed in order to provide these services in their towns, so it’s important this department continue the model of mixed delivery so that we can maximize and capitalize the investments that have already been made,” Padilla said.

Senate Bill 298

Senate Bill 298 is sponsored by Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces. Its purpose is to expand pre-K so that 80 percent of 4-year-olds have access to programs within five years, proposing an addition of about 7,500 spots phased in over that time.

Expansion for 3-year-olds is also included in Senate Bill 298 and includes an increase of roughly 7,100 spots over the next five years, funded through existing private providers.

During an interview with Journal reporters and editors, Sandra Wechsler, the managing director of education nonprofit New Mexico Now, said the bill would tap the state funding formula to pay for the 4-year-olds – a big change in the current reimbursement payment system now in place.

“(The funding formula) is the only equitable way to expand and ensure high-quality, full-day pre-K is delivered equitably to every corner of the state,” said lobbyist Carrie Robin Brunder, adding that more than 14,000 eligible kids do not have access to full-day pre-K.

Wechsler of NM Now, which helped craft the bill, said it would allow 4-year-olds to transition more easily into kindergarten, since both programs would be managed by PED. And she said the intent of the bill is not to harm private providers, saying they would see an expansion of the 3-year-olds’ program.

“We don’t want to put private centers out of business, but we think we can create a 50-50 split in which there is a clear delineation of responsibility between 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds,” Brunder told the Senate Finance Committee last week.

Crystal Tapia, the executive director of private provider Noah’s Ark Children’s Academy, told the Journal that the threat to minority and women-owned businesses is the reason she is against Senate Bill 298.

Moving 4-year-old pre-K students into PED programs in public schools would take too many students from private providers, she said.

“That’s still 40 percent of our enrollment,” Tapia said of the 4-year-olds. “If you eliminate that big chunk, that could shut down a business.”

Currently, private centers have students from infancy to 5 years old.

She said this would particularly affect rural areas that don’t have as many kids paying a tuition and rely on childcare assistance funding.

But Wechsler said the bill’s sponsor, Soules, is open to amending the bill to allow private providers to keep their current 4-year-olds, meaning changes would only affect future students.

Tapia said this isn’t a long-term fix and still takes money off the table for private providers. That’s why she and many other child center chiefs are backing Padilla’s bill.

Senators’ stance

Senators heard arguments for both bills at a Senate Finance Committee meeting on Jan. 24, and Senate Bill 22 appeared to receive a warmer reception.

At the meeting, Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said Senate Bill 298’s fundamental goal could be problematic.

The bill aims for 80 percent of 4-year-olds to be in the PED pre-K programs. But Muñoz argued this goal should be 100 percent rather than 80 percent.

He expressed support for Padilla’s Senate Bill 22, instead.

“I 100 percent support Senate Bill 22 but the universal pre-K (in SB 298) will actually target our federal and our tribal (pre-K programs) and it will hurt them, whereas Senate Bill 22 picks that up,” Muñoz said.

Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, said SB 298 was “flawed from top to bottom” and “shortsighted,” and supported SB 22.

He said the pre-K system in place is working for the state.

“We have a perfectly great system … great for New Mexico,” he said.

And he questioned using the state’s funding formula to pay for the 4-year-olds, saying it would be an added burden to education dollars.

NM Now representatives stand firm that using the funding formula is the best option, asserting that it adheres to the judge’s findings in the education lawsuit. She also said 11 other states are paying for pre-K through their funding formula.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, didn’t pledge support for either bill.

He questioned why the Legislature should spend $2.5 million setting up the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which SB 22 would do, when that money could be used to create more pre-K spots.

As for SB 298, he said childcare center leaders in his district are worried about closure.

Tapia at Noah’s Ark Children’s Academy would ideally like to keep the current mixed delivery system intact.

“Especially when it’s a system that works, it makes no sense to change it,” she said. She said she’d rather see expansion be in the form of equal amounts of increased funding for PED and CYFD programs.

Compromise?

Brunder and Wechsler said Soules is not opposed to Senate Bill 22 and would be open to consolidating the two bills.

One “solution is Senate Bill 22 would become the vehicle,” Brunder said. “But when you get to the pre-K portion of Senate Bill 22, rather than having 4-year-old pre-K go to the new department, you would keep pre-K within the Public Education Department for 4-year-olds.”

However, Padilla didn’t see that as the fix.

He told the Journal that recommendation would be a “huge change” to Senate Bill 22 and would hinder what the bill is trying to achieve.

“It would not accomplish the birth to 5 in one department goal,” Padilla said about the Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

He said he thinks the two bills need to keep “swimming separately.”

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