NM lawmakers evaluate increased childhood spending - Albuquerque Journal

NM lawmakers evaluate increased childhood spending

The state Capitol in Santa Fe this spring. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — As New Mexico poured more money into child care aid for working families, the surge in funding didn’t reach the paychecks of front-line early childhood educators, according to research by legislative analysts.

The challenge is one of many that surfaced Wednesday as lawmakers debated how to ensure the state’s sharply increasing investment in early childhood programs is spent effectively.

General funding for early childhood services is set to reach nearly $380 million this year — an increase of 188% over an 11-year period, according to a report by analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.

In addition, federal stimulus funds provided about $435 million, which must be spent by late 2023.

With so much money available, lawmakers used much of Wednesday’s hearing on early childhood education focused on whether the spending will have the desired impact.

The state, for example, has raised the rates paid to providers as part of a program that subsidizes child care assistance for working parents. But the LFC report said their research suggests previous rate increases haven’t resulted in increased worker pay, which actually decreased by 1% since 2017.

It’s a particular concern, lawmakers said, as New Mexico tries to attract more child care workers, improve their credentials and retain high-quality staff.

“We’re going to have (to) raise those pay bands to get quality people and get people to do those jobs,” said Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat and vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee.

The legislative analysis found that child care worker wages fell from $10.10 an hour in 2017 to $10 in 2019, when adjusted for inflation. By contrast, the directors of child care centers saw 19% growth in their wages, according to the report.

Elizabeth Groginsky, secretary of early childhood education and care, said her agency has launched a series of programs aimed at boosting wages for front-line early educators. The work includes wage supplements for educators making less than $16 an hour, holding job fairs and offering college scholarships to improve credentials.

But broader changes to the funding system for child care assistance could help boost pay for child care staff members, lawmakers and state officials say.

“We have to do something,” Groginsky said. “It’s a wonderful profession, but you have to be able to support your own family and feed your own children when you do this work.”

In a written statement, the left-leaning advocacy group OLÉ said increasing wages is urgent.

“After all of the great work the state has done to build one of the best child care programs in the country, we now need to fix the wage problem, or we simply won’t have enough teachers to educate and care for our youngest children,” said Merline Gallegos, an OLÉ member and owner of Kelly’s Learning Academy in Las Cruces.

In contrast to past debates about the need for funding increases, much of Wednesday’s hearing focused on the volume of money flowing into early childhood education.

On top of regular legislative appropriations and federal stimulus funds, lawmakers were told a new federal budget is expected to make more money available for early childhood education throughout the country.

New Mexico voters also are set to decide next year whether to authorize withdrawing more money from the state Land Grant Permanent Fund, a proposed constitutional amendment that would provide an extra $140 million for early childhood education. In addition, the state has established an early childhood trust that could provide $90 million in about four years.

“We have more money than we need,” Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Finance Committee, said at one point. “That’s what hits me.”

Lawmakers expressed concern that some of the money now available — throughout the federal stimulus package, for example — is only available in a lump sum, not an ongoing source of revenue that can support operations that continue year after year.

Among the findings of the LFC Early Childhood Accountability Report:

  • A program that extends the school year by 25 days for some elementary students, known as the K-5 Plus, has proven to be effective at boosting academic achievement. But few schools are participating — sometimes citing teacher exhaustion — and just 7% of the student slots funded by the state are filled.
    LFC research shows “students who participate in K-5 Plus are more likely to perform on grade level, and the benefits of K-5 Plus are even more pronounced for low-income students and Native American students.”
  • The declining birth rate in New Mexico and other demographic changes suggest the state will need to be flexible over time to ensure the early childhood funding gets to the right programs. Money now used for child care assistance or prekindergarten, for example, might be better spent later on home visiting programs that help new parents.
  • The pandemic has left the state with less data about how children are doing. Young learners lost more than a year of in-person learning and socialization during a crucial time of development.
  • New Mexico should ensure programs maintain high standards as they grow.
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