Thinking About Early Childhood Education

One thing that we’re not really good at in New Mexico is thinking big.

There are constant reminders of the state’s depressing statistics on how poorly low-income children and families are doing in New Mexico. For instance, the fact that Medicare pays the medical expense of 70% percent of the births in New Mexico, many to young, unwed mothers.

That dreadful birth statistic was on page one of today’s Albuquerque Journal. On the editorial page of the same paper appears an editorial by business leaders urging the state not to boldly fund early childhood education through the state’s Permanent Fund citing various technical issues that would seem to be easily avoidable.

A few years back I served on early childhood education task force created by Lt. Gov. Diane Denish to study the experience of these programs in other states and the so far limited early childhood education efforts in New Mexico.

Typically dubious about any kind of magic bullet program that changes everything, I instead came away convinced that this was an extremely promising route to finally ending the cycle where too many generations of low-income families in New Mexico fail to succeed educationally and are doomed to a life of dependency, whether through welfare or incarceration.

The results of early childhood learning in other states, some measured over many years, are impressive. One Federal Reserve economist even calculated that investments in early childhood education brought significant rates of return on public expenditures for such programs.

In New Mexico, the Governor’s idea of how to address this problem is to pass a law that keeps kids in third grade until they pass reading tests. By what magic will their reading skills improve without significant funding for remediation? Besides, aren’t her supporters the ones always complaining there are too many laws on the books already?

The use of Permanent Fund money instead of legislative funding for early childhood education is required because the recent, much ballyhooed reductions in gross receipts tax and income tax only furthered the careers of Governors Richardson and Martinez. They’ve not achieved their economic development goals. And now we have too little state revenue to fund these education programs properly.

So is it only New Mexico that thinks early childhood education makes sense? By no means, most of the states have adopted such programs or are in the process of doing so and colleges and universities around the country are developing early childhood education curricula.

Even highly conservative states such as Oklahoma are providing early childhood education statewide. In that state, all children who are age four on or before each September 1, are eligible for a voluntary public school pre-kindergarten program.

Currently, 70% of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds attend public school and have access to:

  •  an Early Childhood Certified Teacher,
  •  a 10:1 child to teacher ratio,
  •  comprehensive school services, and
  •  full-day or half-day programs
  •  state adopted curriculum standards, and a
  •  school readiness program

In San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Julián Castro convened a blue ribbon task force of business CEOs, school superintendents and education professionals to identify the most effective method for improving the quality of education in San Antonio.

The “Brainpower Task Force” recommended the development of a program focused on high-quality pre-kindergarten services for four-year old children. The Task Force found that high-quality pre-kindergarten has the most impact in improving overall education outcomes for a community and helps children to learn and read on grade-level, making them less likely to fall behind their classmates and more likely to graduate and attend college.

Voters in San Antonio not only supported the program, they authorized the city itself to provide funds to enhance these programs.

Whose students do you think will be reading well by third grade, ours or theirs?

Chuck Wellborn

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