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CYFD under fire for low ranking

SANTA FE – The head of the state agency that oversees key early childhood programs in New Mexico was on the hot seat Friday, with lawmakers frustrated over the state’s drop to 50th in one group’s rankings of child well-being.

Adding to the distress of some legislators at a Legislative Finance Committee hearing was that the state Children, Youth and Families Department’s budget request for next year doesn’t seek to expand what those lawmakers see as promising programs, such as home visiting and pre-kindergarten.

The only increase in early childhood spending CYFD is seeking for the coming year is an additional $6 million for its $95 million subsidized child-care assistance program. This is the program criticized in an LFC staff evaluation earlier in the week for not doing enough to get young children ready for school.

Subsidized child care in New Mexico serves an estimated 20,000 children of low-income parents who work or go to school. It is the largest of New Mexico’s five early childhood programs.

Many lawmakers hope such programs will help boost student achievement and improve New Mexico’s last-place ranking for child well-being in the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count 2013 project.

Other programs administered by CYFD receive less funding than subsidized child care and serve fewer families. They include home visiting, in which trained professionals will offer support to about 2,100 first-time parents this year, and pre-kindergarten, which will serve about 3,841 4-year-olds who live in disadvantaged communities.

The state Public Education Department oversees pre-kindergarten programs in the schools where another 4,830 children are expected to participate. PED also administers the “Reads to Lead” reading coach program and an extended school year program called K-3 Plus.

Despite a 44 percent spending boost for the five early childhood programs over the last two years, Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, noted the 50th-place ranking on Friday during an initial hearing on CYFD’s budget for the next year.

“What is CYFD doing to help us?” Morales asked Yolanda Deines, CYFD secretary. “Where is the plan? What kind of out-of-the-box thinking or creative approaches do you have? I’m just not seeing it right here.”

Deines said her agency hopes to improve the educational aspects of child care assistance by applying the standards used by pre-kindergarten, the voluntary three-hour program created in 2005. She promised more details on other programs when the LFC has a follow-up budget meeting in December.

The $6 million in additional funding CYFD seeks includes $1 million to reduce the waiting list for child-care assistance; $2.25 million to increase child care provider rates; $3 million to increase provider rates for infant care; and $74,000 for building a network to provide services in high-risk areas of New Mexico.

Deines said the state needs to build its infrastructure for programs such as pre-kindergarten and home visiting before expanding them.

Many rural and isolated social service providers, for instance, do not have Internet access or the computer skills to even fill out the required forms to get state money for a program, an LFC analysis said earlier this year.

“It’s pointless to add money if you don’t have any place to put it,” Deines told the Journal after the LFC hearing Friday.