Proposal: Set aside $43M a year for pre-K in New Mexico

September 4, 2018

New Mexico for years has struggled with how to pay for quality prekindergarten programs that could help 3- and 4-year-olds succeed in school and adulthood.

Late last month, the policy group New Mexico Now proposed a solution to lawmakers during a committee meeting in Santa Rosa: invest $43 million per year more into the state’s per-student funding formula for five years. Such a move, a new report says, would ultimately serve 80 percent of eligible 4-year-olds and 50 percent of 3-year-olds at a cost of about $217 million.

The report says this new money would include a $24,000-per-year salary increase for pre-K teachers to better align their pay scale to that of an elementary school teacher.

“We can’t afford not to do this,” said Danila Crespin Zidovsky, an early childhood education advocate and author of the report. “The time is now to expand it, to scale it up to ensure that every 4-year-old who wants it gets it.”

Based on 2016-17 data compiled through a National Center for Educational Statistics survey, New Mexico has enrolled 35 percent of its 4-year-old children in pre-K programs in some 70 school districts and spends more than $52 million on that program.

But more could be done, Zidovsky and others say. The timing for making such a move, she said, could be perfect as “we go into the possibilities that come with a new governor taking office” in January.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said she likes the idea of a systematic move to cover more 4-year-olds and 3-year-olds.

But the report does not recommend where the new money would come from, leaving that decision to lawmakers, Stewart said. She added they may not be able to do that until the next 60-day legislative session, slated to begin in mid-January.

Public schools in New Mexico are supported by a per-student funding formula using money from the state’s general fund. The formula, called the State Equalization Guarantee, is an equation that uses a complex set of factors to determine how much money goes to educate each student in the state.

The proposal comes as the state basks in good economic news — it’s expecting to be awash in $1.2 billion in new money, much of it from revenues created by the oil and gas industry. That is an 18 percent increase in revenue over current spending, according to a forecast presented to lawmakers last week.

“We have so much new revenue now that this is the time to start phasing in programs that are research-based, that are high quality and that will help our public schools,” Stewart said. “And having children coming to school in kindergarten ready to learn is one of the most important things we can do.”

But the ambitious plan also comes in the aftermath of a long-fought court case questioning whether New Mexico has been investing enough resources into ensuring an equitable public education for its students. First Judicial District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in mid-July that lawmakers must come up with a way to meet those needs by April; however, the state has said it will appeal, which could drag out any final ruling.

Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, an advisory member of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said as a result of the court ruling, the timing is not particularly good for a pre-K funding proposal.

“Just jumping out there now, not knowing who is going to be governor, could be unfair to whoever is going to be governor,” he said. “So much is going to happen between now and the session, and I think the new governor will want to have as much say as anyone about how we handle funding.”

Plus, he said, the state telling districts how they must use any new money that may go into the funding formula could be seen as “interfering with local control. And that is something school districts do not want.”

Several public school superintendents interviewed about the plan called it welcome news, particularly because districts have to apply for pre-K funding through a grant program administered by the Public Education Department.

The new proposal, they said, will ensure a steady stream of funding for the program.

“With pre-K money, you have to apply for it every year,” said Richard Perea, the school superintendent in Santa Rosa. “Once you are accepted, you usually get it every year, but you never know.”

Veronica García, superintendent of the Santa Fe Public Schools, said the proposal is “a major step in the right direction. Not having pre-K funding be discretionary where you have to apply for the funds every year, but counting on getting your share of money in an equitable manner is important.”

She said pre-K funding for Santa Fe has been “sporadic” in the past few years but added such programming can be “a game changer for so many children, particularly children in poverty.”

“The proposal is very interesting and worth serious consideration,” said Farmington Municipal Schools Superintendent Eugene Schmidt. “Hundreds more children not previously eligible would have the incredible opportunity to have a jump-start on an education.”

Pre-K proponents say the program teaches young children the concepts of social interaction and motor skills and gives them a head start on developing reading skills — all benefits that pay off with improved test scores, increased graduation rates and lower juvenile delinquency rates in the future.

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