Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For parents like Cecilia Romero, the cost of child care can be daunting.
Romero, an early childhood educator herself, said she and her husband initially held off on having a second child due to cost concerns and faced a budget crunch when they did ultimately have a son during the pandemic.
“The anxiety of trying to find care has been really crippling,” a tearful Romero said during a Thursday news conference in Santa Fe.
But an estimated 20,000 additional New Mexico children – including Romero’s young son – could qualify for child care assistance under a sweeping eligibility expansion that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said would bring New Mexico to about 80% of state-sponsored universal pre-kindergarten and nearly double the number of children who currently qualify.
The child care expansion, and a related change in how subsidy rates paid to providers are calculated, will be paid for over the next two years with roughly $300 million in federal stimulus dollars, a figure that includes about $130 million in discretionary funds to pay for the eligibility expansion, state officials said.
Future funding could come in part from a proposal to increase the annual distribution rate from New Mexico’s largest permanent fund, which will go before statewide voters in November 2022.
“I’m feeling more secure that we can figure this out than ever before,” Lujan Grisham told reporters after Thursday’s news conference at the offices of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department in Santa Fe.
New Mexico has already ramped up its spending on early childhood programs in recent years – from about $140 million in 2012 to nearly $500 million in the current budget year – and lawmakers approved legislation in 2019 creating the new early childhood department.
But the changes announced Thursday will make New Mexico’s income eligibility cut-off for state-sponsored child care the highest in the nation.
Currently, the program is available to families of four who make less than $53,000 per year – or 200% of the federal poverty level. That income ceiling will go up to up to $92,750 for a family of four once the expansion takes effect in August, and could be phased up even higher in some cases to ensure families don’t lose access to the assistance.
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the 2019 bill creating the early childhood agency, said the child care expansion – and accompanying spending infusion – will help address chronically high New Mexico poverty and high-school dropout rates.
“The byproduct (of this) is a workforce that’s second to none,” Padilla said.
However, Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, who founded a child care center, said the state should target its early childhood efforts at low-income families who need help the most.
She also expressed concerns about using federal pandemic relief funds to pay for the changes, saying child care assistance was initially intended as a temporary support – not a universal benefit for New Mexico families.
“A large-scale growth using one-time money is not sustainable,” Dow told the Journal.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who is running for reelection next year, acknowledged the significant cost of early childhood programs Thursday, saying the state has been “dancing around the edges” for years when it comes to funding such expansions.
But she said the funding infusion is necessary to ensure greater access to child care centers around New Mexico and higher pay levels for early childhood workers, who are frequently paid less than licensed teachers.
Meanwhile, Early Childhood Education and Care Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said the changes to child care provider rates and income eligibility thresholds would help close gaps in New Mexico’s early childhood system.
“We still have much work to do, but right-sizing our child care assistance program for parents and providers is an important landmark on our journey toward creating a true cradle-to-career education system that helps all New Mexicans thrive,” Groginsky said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the state’s child care center system, as there were 599 licensed child care centers around New Mexico at the start of May, according to the Early Childhood Education and Care Department.
That’s down from 753 such centers before the start of the pandemic in March 2020, though some centers may have recently reopened their doors, a department spokesman said.