Editorial: Target dollars to early child care, teachers

How much is a child care provider worth? In New Mexico, in dollar terms, the answer is: Not much.

There’s a lot more money flowing to early child care and education programs these days. But it’s not getting to many of those who work most closely with our youngest children.

A new report prepared by analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee says the state’s general funding for early childhood services is expected to be $380 million this year – an increase of 118% over an 11-year period. There’s also $435 million in federal stimulus funding available that must be spent by 2023.

And the state has raised rates paid to providers in a program that subsidizes child care for working parents.

It’s critical a good chunk of this money goes into the pockets of those who are caring for our children.

Yet child care worker pay actually dropped in recent years, from an average of $10.10 an hour in 2017 to $10 in 2019.

That’s less than the current state minimum wage (which increased from $9 an hour in 2020 to $10.50 this year), and the local minimum wages in Santa Fe ($12.10) and Las Cruces ($10.50).

So child care workers literally have been at the bottom of the pay scale, despite the increased focus on early childhood programs by New Mexico’s political leadership in recent years. That needs to change, at least in cases where taxpayer money is involved in paying for child care.

Appropriately, lawmakers are starting to debate whether the state’s increasing investment in early childhood programs is being used effectively. While frontline child care workers’ pay went down between 2017 and 2019, directors of child care centers saw their wages go up 19%, the LFC study says.

Child care is a valuable service, particularly in a period where people are returning to jobs cut during the pandemic. Ten bucks an hour is simply not enough to entice qualified people to nurture and support someone else’s small children while their parents are on the job.

“We’re going to have (to) raise those pay bands to get quality people and get people to do those jobs,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, vice chairman of the LFC, said at a recent meeting.

Elizabeth Groginsky, the state secretary of early childhood education and care, says there are programs that include wage supplements for early childhood educators making less than $16 an hour and college scholarships for improving credentials.

“We have to do something,” she 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.”

Still more money may be on the way. Next year the Legislature will send state voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would provide $140 million for early childhood education. An early education trust could generate another $90 million in four years.

“We have more money than we need,” said Gallup Democrat Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, the LFC chair, a rarely heard comment at the Roundhouse.

And that means New Mexico simply has to do a better job of getting dollars where they make a difference for our children – including more pay for the providers of care and education for preschoolers. That’s necessary to reward those already performing these jobs and to attract good, qualified people in the future.

The OLE advocacy group maintains New Mexico already has built one of the best child care programs in the country but “we now have to fix the wage problem, or we simply won’t have enough teachers to educate and care for our youngest children.”

If there has been any positive aspect to the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that the crisis has shown how essential the nation’s essential workers really are. Many who work in supermarkets or drive trucks will never get rich for what they do, but particularly in difficult times, their services are priceless.

Child care providers and early childhood teachers fall into the essential category, too. New Mexico needs to target some of the millions now available to those we entrust our youngest children to on a daily basis.

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.

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