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Early childhood series: Part 1 – Breaking the cycle

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

State pumps millions into early childhood programs to boost student achievement

Over the past 15 years, the state has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into full-day kindergarten, prekindergarten, family nutrition initiatives, reading readiness programs, remedial classes for college, and increased salaries and training for teachers.

Yet, New Mexico remains plagued by poor fourth grade reading scores, high teen dropout rates, and disappointing numbers of college graduates each year.

Now, there’s a growing recognition here and nationally, buoyed by research on how fast kids’ brains develop, that the key to better student achievement is preventing problems before children ever get to school.

These days, the focus is on New Mexico’s three-year-olds. On newborns. On pregnant mothers.

The earlier, the better.

After cuts during the recession-battered years of the Richardson administration, New Mexico subsequently boosted early childhood investment and ranked among the top states with the highest percentage increase of spending on child care, prekindergarten and home visiting in 2012-2013, according to a survey of 21 states by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One third of the states surveyed decreased such expenditures.

“Nobody’s made the kind of progress we want,” said Peter Winograd, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at the University of New Mexico. “But with the challenges, now there is hope. This is the battle for our generation.”

This year, the New Mexico legislature boosted state funding on such programs by an additional 19 percent over last year.

But now the debate centers how to ensure those dollars are spent effectively, and how to pay for future expansion of the programs.

“Where we are now, we’re understanding via data, via research the impact (early childhood development) has on a child’s life,” said Larry Langley, chair of the state’s Early Learning Advisory Council, which advises the governor about early childhood learning.”We’re in a better position now to know where to target dollars and into what programs and specifics.”

What opened his eyes? Research, he said, that shows 90 percent of a child’s brain development occurs in the first three years of life.

“As a business person, that was the ‘ah-ha!’ moment for me,” said Langley, who also heads the New Mexico Business Roundtable. Remedial programs for the upper grades are still important, he said.

“But if we could implode K-12 and start all over, this is probably the way we would do it.”

This year, state lawmakers upped the early childhood budget to nearly $200 million – up from $137 million in the post-recession of two years ago.

That will enable nearly 9,700 more children to receive early childhood services such as home visiting, prekindergarten and childcare assistance.

But to serve all eligible New Mexico children in need of such services? The tab would be an additional $91 million a year, according to estimates from the state Legislative Finance Committee.

The broad view

Children create designs at the Christina Kent Early Childhood Center earlier this month. The center, which offers childcare and preschool, operates in Albuquerque. But studies show that quality licensed childcare centers and homes are in short supply in the rural and at-risk communities of New Mexico that need them most. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Children create designs at the Christina Kent Early Childhood Center earlier this month. The center, which offers childcare and preschool, operates in Albuquerque. But studies show that quality licensed childcare centers and homes are in short supply in the rural and at-risk communities of New Mexico that need them most. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration estimates state expenditures on early childhood programs this year will run more than $2 billion. That’s the broad view, which includes programs ranging from foster grandparent programs at the state Agency on Aging and Long Term Services to a family literacy program run by the state Corrections Department.

“I’m a big supporter of early childhood programs and serving the most needy families and providing the proper resources for them,” Martinez said. “This does help keep a child from being abused or neglected.

“In my 25 years as a prosecutor,” she said recently, “I saw so many families, walked into their homes, and saw that their support systems were zero and the children are the ones that suffer,” she added. “I’ve also seen where they (the children) end up in the criminal justice system and lost interest in school so early.”

Several promising early childhood programs have been around for years, but are now getting a big financial infusion to expand services.

The state’s prekindergarten program, considered the cornerstone of early childhood development, has been offered since 2005, serving families who live in low-income communities. But only 40 percent of children eligible for preschool from 2009 to 2011 attended, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

During the recession, funding for the program was reduced in New Mexico by more than 18 percent for fiscal year 2011, the second largest percentage cut in the nation, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States.

The state Public Education Department reported that less than 16 percent of those children eligible for the state’s Kindergarten-Three-Plus program in 2012 actually attended. The voluntary program, which began as a pilot in 2003, adds a minimum of 25 days to the beginning of the school year for kindergarten through third grade at certain at-risk New Mexico schools.

Under new legislation enacted this year that expands eligibility, the state Legislative Finance Committee estimated at least 3,800 more children from high poverty areas and schools that received grades of D and F will enroll.

MAP MASTERData driven

Winograd and others say strong data systems are the key to determining which programs work.

This year, the state will begin to track children through the various programs thanks in part to a $25 million federal Race to the Top grant. Each child will be assigned a “unique identifier” to enable tracking among different programs and over time.

“We’re looking at the big picture and we want to do this right,” Langley said. “We’re not looking for a quick fix.”

Langley recalled that 14 years ago, when he began working on public policy for the business community, the emphasis was on the last two years of high school in trying to build a skilled work force.

“So what we’ve done progressively over the 14 years I’ve been involved in this … is we keep going down the pike, and then to grades 9 and 10 and so on. Then, we really realized it is imperative to even start prenatal,” he said. “As we look at the workforce we want, we have to break the poverty cycle, and the way to do that is to invest early in these kids.”

Veronica Garcia, former secretary of the New Mexico Department of Education, said funding for pre-school programs has been well spent, but hasn’t gone far enough.

“It’s not that the investments that have been put in are not working,” said Garcia, now executive director of the non-profit New Mexico Voices for Children, “but are we mitigating the impacts of poverty?”

Lawmakers say the support for early childhood programs is generally bipartisan.

Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, said his organization has no problem with state spending on reforms, such as reading programs and tutoring initiatives launched by the Martinez administration.

“We’re okay with the reading coaches and that kind of thing, because they involve additional reforms at the back end,” Gessing said. “We don’t like the Pre-K stuff unless there’s some more choice-oriented reforms made to the rest of the system.”

Gessing serves on the governing council of New Mexico Connections Academy, a for-profit online charter school that opened this fall. He’d like to see state funding go to creating more “robust” school choice programs, not solely charter schools.

Whatever the increase in spending, some say it’s not enough.

“We’re nickel and diming this when you see what the need is,” said Allen Sanchez, CEO of St. Joseph Community Health. He advocates tapping the state’s land grant permanent fund for another $110 million-a-year for early childhood initiatives. “The evidence of moving to 50th in children’s well being makes it an emergency.”

What works?

Educational assistant Renea Gicante, right, plays with four-year-old Lauren Lozoya, at Shining Stars Preschool in Rio Rancho in August. State funding for preschools jumped more than 100 percent over the past two years after budgets cuts during the recession. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Educational assistant Renea Gicante, right, plays with four-year-old Lauren Lozoya, at Shining Stars Preschool in Rio Rancho in August. State funding for preschools jumped more than 100 percent over the past two years after budgets cuts during the recession. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Over the next six months, state officials, nonprofits and researchers in New Mexico will be homing in on what works here and what doesn’t.

For instance:

  • Since the 1990s, the state has funded different permutations of home visiting, in which trained professionals teach parenting skills to new parents. At one time, some home visiting didn’t even require an actual visit to the home. Instead phone calls were made.

But now a new state home visiting accountability act will require annual report cards of how families are benefiting from the program.

  • On Wednesday, the Legislative Finance Committee will release an evaluation of the effectiveness of early childhood programs on school readiness and literacy. Baji Rankin, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Early Education, says high-quality child care centers and homes have the potential to positively impact as many or even more children than home visiting.

But studies show there are too few top-notch child care centers and homes in the disadvantaged or rural areas that need them the most.

  • There’s still a debate over who should receive state-funded early childhood programs.

A state-funded home visiting program, expected to serve 2,100 families this year, is open to all parents, regardless of income level. But some advocates say it would be a more effective use of the $8 million appropriated this year to serve at-risk families. More than 19,000 newborns are on Medicaid in New Mexico.

The $197 million state budget for New Mexico early childhood programs this year includes federal funds and tobacco settlement money. It does not include an estimated $61 million for federal Head Start programs in New Mexico that will be awarded this year directly to local and tribal Head Start programs, bypassing the state system.

Legislative Finance Committee deputy director Charles Sallee said the challenge is how to appropriately scale up programs.

“We’re trying to figure out a responsible long-range spending plan for targeting resource increases and get a better understanding of who needs what and where,” he added.

Martinez said her administration’s $11 million-a-year Reads to Lead program has already made an impact.

The early literacy program, which provides reading coaches to schools, increased third-grade proficiency an average of 7.8 percentage points compared to the statewide increase of 2.9 percentage points during its first year.

That figure is based on results from the 13 initial participating districts and schools that had to compete for program grants.

Not all of the state’s 89 school districts received grants, and the Legislative Finance Committee staff found that the funding didn’t appear to be targeted to the state’s lowest performing schools or the state’s most at-risk students. This year, every district will receive at least $50,000 and a reading coach.

MAP MASTEREarlier failures

Past programs in New Mexico that didn’t pan out include the $63 million federal Reading First program, which was part of the No Child Left Behind initiative. That program had mixed results, after national studies showed student reading comprehension in first, second, or third grade didn’t improve.

The state Children Youth and Families Department had been subsidizing the federal Head Start programs in New Mexico. But that has stopped.

Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Albuquerque, said she believes lawmakers “are continually improving our expenditure process.”

For instance, New Mexico spent more than $82 million from 2003 to 2007 to raise teachers’ minimum salaries to implement the three-tier licensing system. Some say the raises weren’t substantial enough. But the new system didn’t lead to better student achievement, the LFC concluded.

“We found out that just throwing money at three-tier (teacher) licensures didn’t change anything because the bill didn’t have any accountability (required),” Beffort said. “All it was is you get a higher degree and you get a big raise.”

Coming Monday: The Journal takes you on a home visit.

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