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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Kids could be turned away from state Public Education Department prekindergarten classes in the coming school year due to a funding shortage and increased demand.
With heightened interest in pre-K and a bigger push to go for more expensive full-day options instead of half, Gwen Perea Warniment, a PED deputy secretary, said an additional $7.3 million is needed to fund programs for all of the students who have applied for the 2019-20 school year.
About 6,700 kids attended full- and half-day programs last year, and 7,767 applications have been submitted for the coming school year, according to PED documents.
And among the 7,767, there is more interest in full-day programs, which are more expensive than half-day.
Last year, 3,554 kids were in half-day pre-K and 3,220 in full-day, according to PED numbers. But more than 5,000 students are aiming to get into 2019-20 full-day programs, and just 2,671 student applications have been submitted for half-day.
In 2018-19 PED had a total budget of $36.7 million for pre-K, and for the 2019-20 school year PED’s total pre-K budget is $42.5 million, according to the Public Education Department. That number has gone up significantly over a decade, increasing from roughly $9 million in fiscal year 2010, according to the LFC.
If the additional $7 million isn’t secured, Perea Warniment said, kids either won’t get access to PED pre-K classes or will have to go into a half-day program.
“Children will be turned away, and others will be served in half-day rather than full-day programs,” the deputy secretary for teaching, learning and assessment said.
Perea Warniment said it will be up to school districts to determine how slots are filled and to notify parents if the program reaches capacity.
PED is trying to determine where the $7 million could come from, including seeking money from lawmakers or shifting around internal funds.
State agencies can ask for more money in the form of supplemental appropriations from the Legislature. But those appropriations can be authorized only when the full Legislature is in session, which is not scheduled to happen until January.
The deputy education secretary said the department has been in talks with legislators, including those on the Legislative Finance Committee, to discuss the funding deficit.
Although these programs typically start in August, conversations to secure the dollars are still ongoing, and a formal request has not been made to the LFC.
“We have not made a formal request to LFC, but they are aware of our shortfall, and we have met with them in meetings with staff,” Perea Warniment said.
Meanwhile, David Abbey, director of the LFC, told the Journal that the committee wants more information before pledging extra money.
He noted students could go to other early-childhood options, such as the federally funded Head Start or the state Children, Youth and Families Department programs, saying total enrollment of these programs needs to be examined further.
“Before we can have a clear picture of whether there is a shortfall (in PED), you need to see all the programs laid out, and we are only seeing some of them,” he said.
Abbey said the LFC wants more details to avoid detracting from other options.
“We are somewhat concerned that if we put too much into PED pre-K it may crowd out some of the other programs, whether it’s child care or Head Start,” he said. “For example, in Head Start, we would worry about losing federal funding slots for Head Start and having 4-year-olds go to our programs instead and losing federal funds.”
Abbey said he thinks the situation is “as much a management issue as a funding issue.”
“PED, CYFD, the school districts and the Head Start agencies all have to coordinate,” he said. “They have to go through and say who is serving what, when, where and right-size this program.”
But Perea Warniment said program qualification requirements can get in the way of kids taking advantage of certain early childhood options.
“Some students who cannot be funded in PED pre-K may be able to participate in CYFD programming or Head Start, but not all students. It’s a complex situation and often involves qualifying criteria for some programming. PED pre-K has no qualifying criteria and is open to any and all students, just like public education,” she said, stressing the department is working with other agencies on this.
Perea Warniment said this year’s 1,000 student uptick is the result of multiple factors.
Rural communities are looking to join programs for the first time and other districts, such as Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Gallup, are expanding existing programs, she said.
She also pointed out that the additional funding isn’t needed just to pay for the uptick in applications, but it’s also needed to run programs for a full day versus half.
The increase in applications for full-day pre-K is what Charles Sallee, deputy director of LFC, pointed to in particular as the cause of the $7 million deficit. A longer program is going to cost more money.
“You’re doubling the cost per student. The more they do that, the fewer students they can serve with the dollars they were appropriated. And that’s an administrative decision that PED is looking at.”
Still, Abbey said, if extra funding were to be allocated, that would likely have to be handled at the Roundhouse.
“I’m not clear where the money would come from. The Legislature would have to act, and they’re not meeting until January,” he said.
Pre-K was among the themes of a landmark education ruling that came down in July in which a judge found that New Mexico was not providing the constitutional right of a sufficient education for all New Mexico students. It was emphasized as a way to reduce the achievement gap and boost academic outcomes down the road.