February 14, 2017

Early childhood education bill faces uphill climb

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, left, and Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, discuss House Joint Resolution 1, which calls for a constitutional amendment to draw money from a state permanent fund for spending on early childhood education, during a hearing before the House Local Government, Elections, Land Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee of the New Mexico Legislature on Tuesday, February 14, 2017.

Backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would take about $112 million a year from the state’s land grant endowment to pay for early childhood education say a new study shows that the need for such programs actually exceeds $400 million annually.

“This is an alarm,” Allen Sánchez, president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, said Tuesday of the report commissioned by his organization.

Sánchez is among the most vocal supporters of House Joint Resolution 1, sponsored by Democratic state Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestes and Javier Martinez, both of Albuquerque. It would amend the state constitution to draw less than 1 percent a year from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education.

Sánchez said expanding early education would mean more high school graduates and taxpayers and fewer people in prison. New Mexico typically ranks near the bottom in studies on the education and well-being of children.

But the bill by Maestas and Martinez faces an uphill climb. Republican lawmakers and some Democrats have long opposed taking money from the land grant endowment for another program. Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Democrat from Deming who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is perhaps the most prominent legislator to oppose the bill.

The measure would have to clear both houses of the Legislature to make the ballot in 2018. Then voters would decide whether to use the endowment for pre-K programs. The fund already helps pay for K-12 public schools.

Maestes, Martinez and Sánchez said they are confident they can shape the bill in the form of a really “small football” to get it through the goal post.

The proposal advanced last week when the House Education Committee, along partisan lines, favored it. Then on Tuesday it barely cleared its second barrier when the House Local Government, Elections, Land Grants and Cultural Affairs Committee voted 4-3 along party lines to support the bill. But Democrats and Republicans alike questioned details of the proposal.

“If we get this wrong, it can only be undone by sending it back to the voters,” said Rep. Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque. “What assurance do we have that this will work? The mantra has always been, ‘more money, more money, more money.’ With that, there hasn’t been an appetite to make sure that money is well spent.”

Rep. Miguel Garcia, D-Albuquerque chairman of the local government committee, asked the sponsors to ensure they could lay out exactly how the money would be distributed and what the impact would be on school districts asked to expand early childhood services.

The report authorized by Sánchez’s group, done by independent business consultant Catherine Kinney, relied on hundreds of state and national studies to paint a picture of a state sorely in need of expanded access for early childhood programs.

Kinney’s report says that fewer than 5,000 children from prenatal to 3 years old receive home-visiting services, which can prepare parents and children to succeed in school. It says that just 31 percent of eligible children from low-income families are enrolled in high-quality child-care programs.

And only 29 percent of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K programs now, the report says.

The bill next goes to the House Judiciary Committee. If that committee approves, the full 70-member House of Representatives would vote on the bill.

The proposal includes a provision that would stop the funding if the endowment drops to $12 billion.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com