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Child care funds not boosting learning, audit finds

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The latest on New Mexico’s early childhood education front: More than 80 percent of children from low-income families are behind on the first day of kindergarten and one in four is unable to read even one letter of the alphabet.

More bad news: A just-released report from the Legislative Finance Committee shows neither the $95 million the state spends on child care assistance nor the $61 million the federal government spends on Head Start have boosted third grade reading and math scores.

And, the LFC found, even the highest-rated child care facilities receiving state subsidies failed to improve school readiness. State spending per child has gone up to about $5,500 in an effort to improve the quality of child care centers and homes.

The legislative committee report said most Head Start providers were uncooperative in responding to requests for information about the issue.

Dan Haggard, deputy director for early childhood services at the state Children ,Youth and Families Department, told LFC members at a meeting Wednesday that their evaluators considered the wrong measures.

Child care assistance was designed “to enable the working poor to maintain employment … and to enable students with children to go to school (and become self-supporting taxpayers),” Haggard said. “I would really appreciate an evaluation of how many taxpaying citizens we have in New Mexico as a result of having child care.”

He also noted the LFC report found that children participate in child care for very brief periods.

“It’s really unfair for the child who has been in a program for six months to be (measured) on outcomes four years later. There’s tremendous intervening factors,” Haggard told the committee.

Diana Martinez-Gonzalez, director of CYFD early childhood programs, said that in the past year “there’s been a focus on quality and school readiness, but the main purpose is we’ve got to keep families working.”

Moreover, the committee learned that while federal and state officials have come to expect more of an education component from child care facilities, the average child care worker earns $7.50 to $7.75 an hour. And New Mexico is one of 17 states that doesn’t require “lead teachers” in child care centers to have a high school diploma or GED. Nearly one-third of child care workers surveyed by CYFD in 2010 received government assistance.

The state rates the program quality of licensed providers on a scale of two to five stars, with five as the best. More than 75 percent of the children receiving care in October 2012 were either in two- or five-star facilities. Nearly 60 percent of children receiving child care assistance were under the age of 5.

The report unveiled Wednesday shows nearly half the state’s spending on early childhood programs goes into child care assistance, with about 20,000 children receiving such services per month.

While the number of children served has dropped nearly 24 percent since 2010, the cost per child has increased by 46 percent.

The number of children served has gone down for at least three reasons, CYFD officials said: Applicants are required to enroll in the child support enforcement program, and CYFD is no longer paying for two providers for the same child, nor the full-day rate for part-time care.

Last year, more than $6 million in federal funds for child care assistance programs in New Mexico went unspent, the evaluation found.

The LFC evaluation found it would be better to shift some of the child care assistance money to Pre-Kindergarten, a voluntary program expected to serve about 9,600 low-income children this year.

Spearheaded by then-Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and enacted by the legislature in 2005, the Pre-K initiative for 4-year-olds has shown that participants have higher proficiency rates in standardized reading and math tests than do children who weren’t enrolled and children who had child care, the LFC report stated.

The evaluation of child care assistance programs, which began in February, found that about 60 to 70 percent of 4-year-olds from low-income families received some type of publicly funded early childhood program in fiscal year 2012, either Head Start, Pre-K or child care.

LFC officials said they considered that a positive number.

Head Start

Jon R. Courtney, one of the LFC evaluators, said the review of Head Start, the state’s largest public preschool program, was hampered by the lack of response from most of the local agencies that receive federal program funding.

The state has no direct oversight or involvement in Head Start, and it should attempt to work with the congressional delegation to permit the state to administer the program’s grants, according to the report.

The evaluation found most Head Start programs in New Mexico don’t meet a federal regulation that 50 percent of teachers have a bachelor’s degree or higher in early childhood education.

Three of New Mexico Head Start grant recipients scored below the national median in a 2012 federal assessment that gauged emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support, according to the LFC report. One of the providers scored in the lowest 10 percent in the nation in the instructional support category.

Other findings

The LFC evaluation also found there was a “high risk” of fraud, abuse and waste in the child care assistance program, but CYFD officials said the agency has made “huge strides” to reduce improper payments. Evaluators also discovered three registered sex offenders who had listed the location of a child care provider facility as their primary residence. CYFD was notified, and it suspended those providers.

CYFD could better inform the public about infractions involving child care providers, the report stated. Examples of unreported infractions not listed in the public CYFD database included a case of physical abuse and a child being duct-taped to a chair.

The report noted that New Mexico is one of only 10 states that doesn’t have any requirements related to accounting for children in child care center vehicles. Evaluators found three instances in which providers left children in cars and two other examples of a child being left behind in a park after a field trip.