At our recent Kids Count Conference, I asked the room of nearly 400 attendees to raise their hands if they had ever spent money on activities such as music lessons, team sports, preschool or a tutor for a child or grandchild. Then I asked if any of them would characterize that spending as “throwing money at the problem.”
People laughed because they know this spending is an investment in their children’s futures to help them be successful. Success is something we should want for all children.
I asked the question because on the day before the conference the Journal editorialized about the recent national Kids Count rankings, which placed New Mexico at the bottom in education and child poverty.
The editorial board used one of its favorite catch phrases – spending more in education is “throwing money at the problem.” Never mind that in the same editorial, the Journal advocated holding back third graders who are not reading at grade level – which is the vast majority of them – despite the fact that this would be extremely costly and research shows that it doesn’t produce the desired results.
Somehow, this ineffective remediation is not “throwing money at the problem,” while investing in high-quality early childhood programs that have been proven to prevent this problem is wasteful.
The editorial also referred to these early childhood programs as “vaguely defined” by the lawmakers and advocates who want to “throw” millions at them. Actually, the programs we want to make available to more young children are very well defined. They are home visiting, child care assistance and pre-kindergarten.
Home visiting programs help connect first-time parents with information and resources to help them navigate the daunting landscape that is child-rearing. First Born and the Nurse Family Partnership are two excellent state-funded programs that have been shown to improve educational outcomes for children, increase parental involvement in their education and reduce the incidence of child abuse, among other things.
In short, not only do these programs work, they also save the state millions of dollars because they prevent what can be costly problems down the line.
Child care assistance is important because parents need a safe place for their children while they either work or go to school. High-quality child care can also help children succeed at school, but quality costs money and New Mexico’s child care assistance program has been drastically underfunded for years.
New Mexico’s pre-K program has been the subject of a national study and has been shown to improve educational outcomes. Unfortunately, Pre-K in New Mexico serves just a fraction of our 4-year-olds and even fewer 3-year-olds.
Although we couldn’t disagree more with what the editorial called “meaningful education and economic reforms,” we do agree with the conclusion that a key component of improving child well-being is gainful employment for parents. Unfortunately our unemployment rate is still high and more than one-third of our children have parents who lack secure employment.
Although we’ve thrown plenty of money at profitable corporations via tax cuts, this misguided economic development strategy has proven to be a complete failure that has yet to produce jobs.
One thing we know will attract employers to New Mexico is a well-educated and trained workforce, but furthering worker education is a low priority for the state. Just 5 percent of adults who qualify for adult basic education are served and the waiting list is long.
The economy has changed tremendously over the past century and, as a result, well-developed human capital is much more essential than ever before. Many economists – including Nobel Prize laureate James Heckman – believe that the path to prosperity lies in investing in human capital – and the earlier, the better.
If we invested more in proven early childhood programs we wouldn’t need to resort to the counterproductive strategy of holding children back. The Journal editorial board may call this investment “throwing money at a problem,” but that doesn’t make it any less of an effective strategy that New Mexico would be wise to embrace.