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As a mother of three who had her first child as a teenager, Alicia Fout faced some significant financial struggles, sometimes having to pick and choose which bills she paid each month.
“Trying to balance school and work and everything – it was always one of those ‘fun games,’ ” she said.
But with recent expansions of free early childhood education, she’s been able to enroll her 3-year-old in pre-kindergarten, something she wasn’t able to do with her other kids and which has been financially freeing for her and her family.
“It’s really put a lot more money back into our home for us to be able to pay bills and not be behind,” she said. “I’m able to just pay the bills and still have a little bit extra for the kids and I to do things that they enjoy and to put money into their savings.”
Fout and her family joined more than 100 people – community advocates, education officials, state lawmakers and the governor – in Albuquerque’s South Valley on Wednesday to rally support for Constitutional Amendment 1, which would boost funding to expand early childhood education by almost $150 million next year.
The amendment, set to be decided by voters next week, would increase the annual distribution from the permanent school fund by 1.25 percentage points to 6.25%. Sixty percent of that would go to early childhood education, and the rest would go to instruction for “at risk” students.
For the fiscal year starting next summer, that would come out to an additional estimated $140 million for early childhood education and another $90 million for public schools. Those amounts aren’t set, though, and would vary over the years.
Early childhood education helps students all the way down the line, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said, adding that debates over drawing more money for early childhood education from the permanent school fund – which have gone on for over a decade – have gone on “far too long.”
“If we had done this 20 years ago, we would be in the top 10, 15 states, I believe, in terms of educational outcomes,” she said in an interview. “The earlier you start with kids and their families, the whole family structure’s improved, and they do better in school.”
Some lawmakers and economists point out that the amendment would mean less money in the long run – potentially 20 years from now – than if the distribution rate is left at 5%.
Others have argued the amendment isn’t needed, as state lawmakers have made significant investments in early childhood education in recent years.
That includes a dedicated trust fund that an Early Childhood Education and Care Department spokesperson said is currently just under $2 billion, and this year saw a distribution of about $30 million.
The state Legislative Finance Committee has also previously argued that amid declining birth rates, expanded early education services and competition among providers, funding in some cases was going unused.
According to an LFC report from August, that includes pre-kindergarten services and the state’s Head Start program. That program provides comprehensive early education, nutrition and other care services to families at or below the poverty line, and is largely federally funded.
But more money is needed for early childhood education and services, Early Childhood Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said, because services currently don’t match the needs or the quality that’s needed for New Mexico families.
While some school districts are oversaturated with providers, some are far below where they need to be, Groginsky said, pointing out that the department is only meeting about 10% of the needs of families who want or require home visits.
“It’s been underfunded massively for decades, for generations – and not just in New Mexico, across the country,” she said, adding that the amendment would provide “stable and predictable funding.”