March 2, 2019

Senate overwhelmingly passes bill creating early ed department

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New Mexico State Senate. Wikicommons

With little debate, the state Senate on Saturday voted 39-2 to approve a measure to create a new Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which would oversee all programs for infants and young children in New Mexico, including home visits for families, child care assistance and pre-kindergarten.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, is one of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pet initiatives, as she touted a plan to move all such services under one department while she was on the campaign trail.

The governor went so far as to send an executive message to the Senate last week asking for support of the initiative. She also sent a number of emissaries, including Lt. Gov. Howie Morales and Public Education Secretary-designate Karen Trujillo, to committee hearings to testify for the measure as it made its way through the legislative session.

“This is going to tie everything together to provide consistency across the continuum,” Padilla told the Senate before Saturday’s vote.

The bill next goes to the House for consideration.

Currently, a number of state agencies, primarily the Public Education Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department, provide an array of programs and services for children though the public school system and private providers.

Advocates for pre-K programs say they not only better prepare children for kindergarten but also help them develop emotional and social skills. Such programs pay off down the line with higher student achievement scores, lower dropout rates and better preparation for college and careers, proponents say.

While New Mexico generally ranks at or near the bottom in most national studies when it comes to its public education system, it has earned fairly good scores when it comes to early childhood education.

In April, for example, the National Institute of Early Education Research issued a report saying New Mexico had steadily invested in preschool programs and was “punching above its weight” in quality.

Padilla’s legislation has overcome a few bumps. The Senate Rules Committee held on to it for a week while Padilla and others reworked much of the language and added a number of amendments.

Then Senate Education Committee then voted to include an amendment that would have cut the department’s responsibility in half.

Padilla has argued that placing all oversight of programs for children from birth to age 5 under one roof will streamlines services and improve the state’s pre-K initiatives because everyone involved will be “sleeping, eating and drinking” early childhood education programs.

Padilla’s plan would require the appointment of another Cabinet secretary. Currently New Mexico has 22 Cabinet-level department leaders.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, one of only two senators to debate the bill Saturday, asked Padilla if the state really needs another secretary.

“We’re still at the bottom of everything,” Sharer said. “I’m not sure that adding another person to that big round table” [in the Governor’s Office] will make a difference.

Still, he voted for the bill. Only two senators — Mimi Stewart, a Democrat from Albuquerque, and Pat Woods, a Republican from Broadview — voted against it.