NM must keep early childhood momentum going - Albuquerque Journal

NM must keep early childhood momentum going

On June 22, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released its latest Kids Count rankings – and for the third year in a row, New Mexico ranked last in the nation in child well-being.

Here’s what this report means and what my administration is doing about it:

First, it’s important to understand that these rankings are based on 2018 data, the latest available. They also reflect years of budget cuts for essential early education and human services programs.

Sometimes, it is true, you get what you pay for. For too long, New Mexico chose not to invest in high-quality early childhood programs despite the fact that for every dollar invested, these programs save our state six dollars in education, health care and other costs.

More to the point, these programs – including home visiting services and early interventions, family nutrition services, high-quality child care, Early Head Start and Head Start, early pre-K, and pre-K – provide essential developmental support, education and care to our youngest children and their families.

In other words, the Kids Count rankings provide a crystal-clear explanation for the choices my team and I have made since taking office in 2019.

When I was sworn in, our state’s early childhood programs were housed in several different agencies. Naturally, this created coordination and communication challenges – even among early education professionals who were working hard to meet families’ needs.

We knew that by placing most of the state’s early childhood programs under one roof, we could take a genuine systems approach – creating a clearer continuum of services and helping the state’s programs collaborate more effectively. Just as importantly, we could help families understand, access and transition between services more easily.

In our first legislative session, then, we partnered with Sen. Michael Padilla, Rep. Linda Trujillo, and a host of other allies and advocates to establish the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, one of only a small handful of state Cabinet-level agencies dedicated to child well-being in the country. Getting this legislation over the line was my top priority, because nothing less than our kids’ future was at stake.

But we didn’t stop there. Last year, we also raised child care assistance eligibility to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level, $52,400 per year for a family of four. We did so because we knew that tens of thousands of New Mexican parents need safe, nurturing places for their children to go while they are at work or school. and we want to make it as seamless as possible for those families to get the support they need.

During this year’s winter legislative session, we went a step further, creating the Early Childhood Trust Fund to provide a permanent funding source for early childhood programs far into the future.

While I am very proud of our accomplishments over the last 18 months, I am also conscious of the fact that none of this happened overnight. We built on the work of legislators, advocates and early childhood professionals who have spent decades working for New Mexico’s children – many of whom continue to do so far from the spotlight.

I am also aware that deep, transformative change will not happen with the snap of our fingers. The official launch of the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department marks a crucial step toward a more cohesive, equitable, and effective early childhood system, but there is much work ahead.

And while numbers can guide us, ultimately this work is far more real and tangible than any ranking. It’s about ensuring that none of our kids grow up in poverty, that all of our children have access to the health and educational opportunities they deserve, and that every family, regardless of background, feels supported, respected and included. That’s the New Mexico I believe in, and that’s the New Mexico I’ll continue working for.

If we are to make progress, though, we’ll need every New Mexican to pitch in. ECECD’s success will depend on parents and families keeping us informed about their needs. It will depend on providers and educators offering honest feedback to the department’s new leadership. And it will depend on state agencies continuing to work together in service of a shared mission: to create a brighter and healthier future for our youngest New Mexicans.

Let’s get to work.

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