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Editorial: NM pre-K needs to deliver more bang

The July 21, front-page headline was so promising: “NM finds lasting gains in first pre-K cohort.” And if you accept that any increase is worth the hundreds of millions of dollars the state has invested in pre-kindergarten over the years, you can take the announcement at face value.

But if you look at the actual results, and years of reports from the state Legislative Finance Committee, it’s clear not all pre-K is created equal, many programs don’t deliver improved educational outcomes, and the fledgling Early Childhood Education Department and its $320 million trust fund have serious accountability work ahead to change the pattern of throwing money at a problem and calling it a day.

A study of the first state-funded pre-K cohort shows significantly improved graduation rates. Important movement in the right direction, yes, but the overall findings did not show the core academic improvement needed to remove us from the very bottom of state education rankings.

And not the core academic improvement needed to not only comply with the landmark Yazzie/Martinez ruling on equity in education, but to give every student the educational foundation they need for the next stages of their lives.

Analysts for the LFC tracked the state’s inaugural prekindergarten class for 14 years, many of whom recently graduated high school. The longitudinal study found about 80% of those who participated in prekindergarten graduated high school, compared with 74% of students who didn’t participate. The study also found about 83% of the pre-K students who were English-language learners graduated high school, compared with 72% who weren’t in pre-K. Good progress at narrowing the achievement gap.

Other key improvements were a reduction in chronic absenteeism and improved odds a child will exit special education services.

But the study showed only nominal progress of just 2 percentage points in third-grade students’ proficiency in math and English. Among third graders, math proficiency “climbed” to 34% in the 2018 school year for pre-K students, compared with 32% among students who hadn’t participated. That’s still an abysmal record of just three out of every 10 students able to do grade-level math. Consider that “progress” in light of state spending on pre-K, delivered through public schools and private providers, more than doubling over a six-year period through 2019. The state expects to spend $95 million on prekindergarten in the next year.

Meanwhile, a recent report from personal-finance website WalletHub again reinforced New Mexico’s poor educational performance compared to other states. It examines pupil-teacher ratios, dropout rates, median standardized-test scores, bullying and high school students reporting being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and ranks our schools 51st among states and D.C.

So yes, the results are somewhat promising when it comes to handing out more diplomas, but not when it comes to ensuring students have the basic math and language building blocks to successfully prepare for college or the workforce. And for the tens of millions of tax dollars being spent every year on early childhood education in New Mexico, our kids and our state deserve much more than 2 percentage points and seven out of 10 kids still being left behind.

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.