Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Inside the prekindergarten classrooms at ChildCo Day School, kids engage their imagination as they play with blocks and learn to navigate conflicts.
They have space dedicated to books, numbers and family photos.
It’s the kind of early childhood program Democrats and Republicans alike have embraced over the past decade as a powerful strategy for boosting academic achievement and promoting healthy families.
New Mexico is set to pour $579 million this year into pre-K, child care assistance, home visiting for new parents and other early childhood programs – double the amount from five years ago.
But the next funding decision is up to voters.
A measure on the Nov. 8 ballot would amend the state Constitution to authorize heftier withdrawals out of New Mexico’s largest permanent fund – an extra 1.25 percentage points, boosting the annual distribution from 5% to 6.25%.
It would generate another $140 million for early childhood education in the budget year that starts next summer and an extra $90 million for public schools more broadly, according to recent projections. But the amount would vary over time, peaking in the next few years.
Supporters describe it as a necessary investment that would allow services to reach more families and provide a stable funding stream, protected from volatility in oil and gas income. New Mexico’s early childhood department, they note, estimated it would need an additional $505 million in three years to provide universal access to early childhood services.
“The current oil boom – as we have painfully seen happen time and time again as a state – will not last,” said Elizabeth “Eli” Cuna, campaign manager for the Vote Yes for Kids initiative and mother of a newborn. “We cannot pass up the opportunity to make a permanent and significant investment in our most important resource.”
For more than a decade, the proposal has generated fierce debate at the Legislature. It won approval last year, sending the proposal to voters in this year’s general election.
Opponents say the constitutional amendment isn’t necessary.
Policymakers at the Roundhouse, they say, have already prioritized early childhood and other education programs without tapping more heavily into the permanent fund.
An early childhood trust fund created in 2020, for example, is projected to reach a balance of $8.3 billion by the end of 2025, or enough to deliver $235 million in annual funding for early childhood programs.
“I don’t think we need the money right now,” Republican state Sen. Gay Kernan, a retired teacher from Hobbs, said of the ballot measure. “People don’t know or understand that additional oil and gas revenues are just flooding the early childhood trust fund.”
For Ivydel Natachu, who teaches in the “Roadrunners” classroom for 3-year-olds at ChildCo in Albuquerque, the debate holds personal meaning.
She views the ballot measure as a way to boost the low wages of early childhood educators and provide professional development training that will improve the quality of the workforce.
She sees firsthand, she said, the impact high-quality pre-K can have on kids and their families.
“We’re here at their most critical time of development,” Natachu said.
‘Something that works’
Few at the Capitol cast doubt on the effectiveness of pre-K – a key beneficiary of New Mexico’s early childhood funding.
Analysts working for the Legislative Finance Committee have found long-lasting academic gains for children who participate in pre-K, and the effect seems to be amplified by certain programs that extend the school year if they are carried out in a high-quality way, the analysts say.
The ballot measure is aimed at funding both parts of the equation. Sixty percent of the extra distribution would go toward early childhood programs, such as pre-K, child care assistance and other services.
The other 40% would go to public schools more broadly to enhance instruction for students at risk of failure, extend the school year and compensate teachers.
“We’re not creating something new,” said Allen Sánchez, president of St. Joseph’s Children, a nonprofit that operates a home visiting program, but doesn’t accept government funding. “We’re expanding something that works.”
It would come at a cost.
The extra distribution would be from the permanent school fund, the largest component of the larger land grant permanent fund. It’s a sovereign wealth fund – one of the largest in the country – operating a bit like an endowment, and growing with investment income and royalty revenue from oil and gas production on state lands.
Valued at roughly $24 billion earlier this year, the land grant fund distributes 5% of its recent average annual value, or about $1 billion a year, to support spending on schools, universities, hospitals and other beneficiaries.
The balance would grow more slowly if the distribution climbs to 6.25%.
Eventually – perhaps 25 years from now, or in the 2040s – the fund would actually deliver less money at the 6.25% distribution rate than if it had been left alone at 5%, according to economists for the Legislature.
Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, said the math makes it a bad decision.
New Mexico already has trouble effectively spending the early childhood money available now, he said, and it’d be better to have extra money from the land grant permanent fund in later decades.
“The children of the future will pay the price,” he said, “and the children today will get no benefit.”
Opponents also raise legal questions about the proposal and suggest there’s nothing in place that would prevent lawmakers from using the extra distribution to supplant other education funding, rather than actually growing education spending.
‘Bottom of the barrel’
The debate comes as New Mexico faces the aftermath of a 2018 court decision that found the state had failed to provide a sufficient education for every student. The decision focused on students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English-language learners and Native American students.
The court suggested New Mexico’s education funding was inadequate.
The state has responded by ramping up teacher salaries and recruitment efforts, and offering financial incentives for districts that extend learning time, amid other efforts.
But academic outcomes remain dismal.
Supporters of the early childhood ballot measure say the extra funding could make a real difference in programs that work.
In a randomized study overseen by the University of New Mexico, for example, year-old children whose parents participate in a home visiting program offered by CHI St. Joseph’s Children demonstrated better development in problem-solving, social skills and other areas, compared to children not in the program.
A university researcher characterized it as “promising evidence” of the program’s effectiveness, but said more study is needed to track longer-term outcomes.
“Most people have accepted that early childhood programs are the mitigators to toxic stress – the adverse childhood experiences that have held back New Mexico for years,” Sánchez, of St. Joseph’s Children, said.
Opponents – mostly Republican legislators over the past decade, in addition to some fiscally conservative Democrats – say more money isn’t the answer.
New teaching strategies for reading, in particular, would help, Kernan said.
“We’ve got to do something different,” she said, “or we’re never going to get out of the bottom of the barrel.”
Sharer said past increased distributions out of the land grant permanent fund – adopted in 2003 to boost education funding – didn’t make a meaningful difference.
In a special election 19 years ago, voters approved raising the annual distribution rate from 4.7% to 5.8%, with gradual reductions back down to 5% by 2017. The extra proceeds went to public schools and other beneficiaries.
“We’ll squander the money,” he said of this year’s proposal. But the next step is up to voters.