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Editorial: Early childhood department has potential to be a major step forward for NM’s kids, economy

It could be so much more than a baby step.

Legislation establishing a Cabinet-level department to consolidate and oversee the state’s early childhood programs promises to be a bold stride with enormous potential to transform the metrics that consistently lead to New Mexico’s bottom-of-the-nation rankings.

Senate Bill 22, sponsored by Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, passed the Senate 39-2, passed the House late Saturday and is on the way to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. The governor and former state Health secretary is an ardent supporter who quietly expended some of her political capital to get this across the finish line while fending off amendments undercutting the new department’s effectiveness. Kudos to her and the sponsors.

The legislation 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 – home-visiting programs, child-care licensing, pre-kindergarten and prenatal services and education – from these four silos to one with a clear focus on serving young children should help ensure more of New Mexico’s kids are healthy and ready to learn.

And putting the programs in one agency under one leader should eliminate duplication and approaches that don’t deliver results, promote replication of best practices and, finally, give taxpayers much-needed accountability for the hundreds of millions of dollars they pour into these programs. New Mexico has more than doubled spending in this area in the last eight years to more than $300 million in the current fiscal year. That amount will go up again significantly in next year’s budget – Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, and chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has pegged it as high as $500 million with federal funding factored in. As Padilla told Journal editors earlier this year, “that’s a lot of money to not know what we’re doing.”

The governor would appoint the Cabinet secretary, and this one agency head – not various program directors and secretaries in four departments with their own turf protection motives – will be called to account to legislators, governor and public. If the new agency doesn’t move the needle, there should be no way to hide that.

Job No. 1 should be a thorough evaluation of where those hundreds of millions of dollars are going and what taxpayers and kids are getting as a return on investment. As the department is set up via a $1.25 million appropriation, the various programs will continue to receive their funding streams, which they will take with them when they join under one roof. As the new department gets the lay of the land, those additional millions in the new budget should be sufficient to meet program needs without tapping the permanent fund – state officials and lawmakers have questioned the state’s ability to immediately spend even more in an effective and responsible way with limited human capital and infrastructure.

Padilla, who grew up in foster care, says “the outlook for children in New Mexico today is one of poverty. We believe this is one thing we can do to turn that tide.” The governor used a “T” word as well. “New Mexico is more than ready to transform education and child welfare. Early childhood is the foundation.”

A competing bill and proposed amendment to Padilla’s would have kept much of the pre-K mission exclusively under the Public Education Department. Both have died, and this bill offers continuity and oversight those did not.

It’s worth noting when the bill came over from the Senate, Speaker Brian Egolf referred it to House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs. It did not go to House Education, loaded with Albuquerque Public Schools employees whose campaigns were bankrolled in part by teacher unions that prefer all funding and programming go through the traditional public school model and where it might well have hit tougher sledding.

So will this be transformative? Too soon to tell. Remember, full-day kindergarten and three-tiered teacher licensing with pay hikes failed to live up to that billing. But this legislation could be a game changer, lifting the welfare of our children and state.

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.