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Editorial: New department has best odds for NM’s youngest kids

The debate on these two points is over: First, if we are ever going to climb out of our social and economic morass, New Mexico needs to do a better job of providing essential health and education services to our youngest residents, namely children from birth to age 5. Second: public schools alone can’t fix the problem, nor can simply throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at it without a coordinated plan that has sufficient oversight.

That’s why SB 22, legislation by Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, makes so much sense and offers a more effective pathway to childhood learning and success than a competing plan.

SB 22 creates an Early Childhood Education and Care Department that carves out and consolidates certain services now offered by four separate departments: Children Youth and Families, Public Education, Human Services and Health. Moving select services from these four silos to one with a laser focus on serving young children will help kids when they need it most and “is going to drive a much more cost-efficient way to the taxpayer to deliver those services,” Padilla says.

“We’re spending $325 million (annually),” he explains. “That’s a lot of money to not know what we’re doing.” Under SB 22, one agency, not four, would handle services ranging from home visits to health to Pre-K. Although atypical for New Mexico, its goal is to have the right and left hands work in sync.

Both SB 22 and the competing SB 298 by Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, would expand the number of kids aged 3 and above in Pre-K programs. But a key difference is under Padilla’s plan, staff and contracts – including those with private pre-K providers – would be transferred to the new department along with the $325 million in funding from the four current departments.

Padilla says private child care providers are expected to transition into the new department as long as – and this is key – they meet benchmark standards set up by the new department. That’s important, because Soules’ plan would move pre-K for four-year-olds into the exclusive realm of PED – which might appeal to those wanting an emphasis on academic readiness, but in reality would ultimately dismantle an existing, and in many cases excellent, private Pre-K system that includes wraparound services many parents and guardians need and personnel they are confident in and comfortable with.

Those include people like Crystal Tapia of Noah’s Ark Children’s Center in Albuquerque, who says SB 298 would force her to close. That bill’s proponents maintain private providers like Tapia who lose all their 4-year-olds will make it up with an increase in 3-year-olds. That asks providers to take it on faith families will enroll their very young children and make the limited school-day hours work, and it ignores families’ need for other services and their choice in providers.

Padilla adds we have “a lot of minority and women-owned businesses devoted to child care and learning that have sprung up all over the state, invested the capital dollars needed in order to provide those services in their towns, so it’s important this department continue the model of mixed delivery so we can maximize and capitalize on the investments that have already been made.”

The legislation has a modest request for $2.5 million in one-time funding to set up the new department – an investment in taxpayer capital that should pay returns in better oversight and efficiencies of public dollars as well as lives of our children.

Padilla has a natural affinity for helping kids. He grew up poor, lived in foster care and experienced “lunch shaming” – working in the school cafeteria to make up for the hot lunch he couldn’t afford or even having his school lunch taken away. He went on to a successful career in government, business and politics – even co-sponsoring the law banning lunch shaming that made national news.

So Padilla knows what it is to beat the odds many of NM’s children face. If implemented in a way that continues to work with the family services that stay with the four agencies it is drawing from, his and Rep. Trujillo’s proposal holds promise for actually changing the odds for a new generation of children.

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.