The true cost of providing early childhood education

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — When children have access to opportunities they need to grow up healthy and reach their full potential, we all benefit.

Thanks to rigorous scientific research, we know that children with access to high-quality, full-day pre-kindergarten read earlier, are better prepared for school and are more likely to graduate and perform better over the long term.

By investing in pre-K, we will spend less money in the long term on special education, poverty and jails — and we will ensure our children can compete in tomorrow’s economy.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is a fierce advocate for universal pre-K. With an equitable and stable growth plan, she has stated we can get to universal pre-K within five years.

That means almost 14,000 new pre-K seats for New Mexico’s children.

Fewer than half of all 3 and 4-year-olds in New Mexico are enrolled in preschool.

New Mexico offers pre-K services in public schools and private early-care facilities. While the two types are fairly comparable, the salaries are not.

Pre-K teachers at public schools are paid the same salary as K-12 teachers, have the same employee benefits and are required to have specific education credentials. That matters, because the level of pre-K quality is largely determined by teacher education.

New Mexico’s private pre-K providers are valuable partners who also provide mostly high-quality pre-K. However, teachers in most private centers are paid low wages — so low they often rely on food stamps and Medicaid.

In New Mexico, the highest standards are at the public schools. Therefore, if we want to achieve universal pre-K where every child benefits from a high-quality classroom, we have to have a conversation about the true costs of providing it.

New Mexico’s Public Education Department (PED) is leading this conversation. Public school teachers were given well-deserved raises in the last legislative session.

This increased the cost of providing pre-K, so PED will be able to serve about 200 fewer children with the funding allocated for the coming year. Unfortunately, PED already has a waitlist for full-day pre-K of 1,000 children across the state.

PED is asking for supplemental funds to fill this gap. We encourage the governor and the Legislature to approve this funding request.

It’s urgent and it brings us one step closer to universal pre-K.

This is also an opportunity for private providers and lawmakers to reassess the true costs of providing pre-K to 3- and 4-year-olds, with the goal of providing wage parity with public schools. This will increase the amount that’s needed for reimbursements, but paying teachers well is the right thing to do, and it will ensure a professionalized workforce and the high-quality education that results in the best outcomes.

As PED’s request is evaluated, additional funds should be made available so state Children, Youth and Families Department pre-K can begin to address wage parity.

Let’s address the issues holding the system back from providing for every child, address the true costs of providing pre-K, and provide funding in a way that’s truly equitable and reaches every child in every corner of the state.

(Stephanie Ly is the AFT-New Mexico president, and James Jimenez is the New Mexico Voices for Children executive director. Both live in Rio Rancho.)

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