Lawmakers debate ways to expand early childhood education
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A key New Mexico lawmaker said Thursday that he agreed with early childhood education experts who say expanded pre-kindergarten programs could help alleviate poverty in one of the nation's poorest states.
But Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, told The Associated Press that he remained opposed to advocates' push for New Mexico to dip into its Permanent Land Fund to finance universal early childhood education.
"Nope. Not going to support that," the Deming Democrat said. "Won't happen."
Smith's remarks come as lawmakers who help set spending priorities for New Mexico heard from early childhood education experts at a special legislative hearing in Santa Fe as they seek ways to boost early childhood education programs and strengthen the safety net for children.
Advocates and liberal Democrats are expected to aggressively push measures next legislative session to expand such programs amid pressure to combat the state's growing child poverty rate.
Advocates believe they have a chance to pass legislation under a new governor. But liberal Democrats don't agree with moderate Democrats and Republicans on how the state should pay for any expanded programs.
Smith said he's open to funding ideas but that it's going to take "baby steps" to get programs where they need to be to make a difference.
"We also don't have the workforce," Smith said. "This is all going to take time."
Early childhood education experts from the National Conference of State Legislatures or funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation used research, stories and data to show New Mexico lawmakers how pre-kindergarten programs will help children escape poverty.
They used examples from other states on how programs should collaborate with agencies and adopt accountability measures. The researchers also showed how the lack of early childhood programs was directly affecting poor Latino and Native American children who enter elementary school behind in math and literacy.
Lawmakers nodded and appeared to generally agree on researchers' conclusions about the benefits of early childhood education.
Early childhood educators are among the lowest paid professionals nationwide, according to researcher Caitlin McLean of the Berkeley, California-based Center for the Study of Child Care Employment.
The average yearly salary nationwide is around $22,000 and the pay is even lower in New Mexico, she said. Many also don't get sick pay, she said.
"It's not an attractive field," McLean told lawmakers.
She gave examples of how other states were working to raise wages for early childhood educators.
The debate at a special Legislative Finance Committee workshop comes as a new report found the number of children living in poverty and without health insurance increased in New Mexico in 2016.
Associated Press writer Russell Contreras is a member of the AP's race and ethnicity team. Follow Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras