May 9, 2023

ECECD announces rule changes to help families and early childcare providers and educators

Jennifer Martinez, an early childcare worker, talks to a reporter about her experiences in the industry at a Kelly's Learning Center in Las Cruces.

The state Early Childhood Education and Care Department announced a proposed rule change that would maintain the expanded eligibility for early childcare assistance on a day of action by some early childcare centers nationwide.

ECECD expanded early childcare assistance in 2021 to allow a family of four making up to 400 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, to remain eligible for state assistance. The policy had a 2023 end date but ECECD is proposing to change its rules to implement that change permanently.

The rule change would also include increased rates for early childcare providers and will enable participating providers to maintain a $3 per hour raise that went into effect in 2021. Micah McCoy, communications director for ECECD, told NM Political Report that the intent is that no early childcare worker will make less than $15 an hour but lead teachers can make as much as $20 an hour.

The proposed change will also, if implemented, exempt families up to the 185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level from copays for early childcare and ensure that families receiving early child care assistance do not need to  pay gross receipts tax on child care. 

The announcement coincided with a Day Without Childcare, a national day of action organized by Community Change Action, a group advocating for more affordable wages and other improvements to early childhood educators. With early childcare centers around the country closing for one day to remind the public of their importance to the overall economy, the action took place in cities all across the country. The group advocates for early childcare educators to earn a living wage on par with K-12 public school teachers.

At least five early childcare centers in New Mexico participated in the action, according to OLÉ New Mexico, a nonprofit that advocates for early childcare issues.

One early childcare center, a Kelly’s Learning Academy in Las Cruces, participated in the one-day closure. Merline Gallegos, director of the academy, said she has been in business for 11 years and she has 17 children on a waiting list but she has had to pay her workers out of her own pocket at times to keep going. She said the parents of the children she cares for understand why she closed for a day.

“I have been doing this [one-day closure] for two years. I want to create awareness nationwide for an affordable childcare system built on racial justice,” Gallegos said through an interpreter.

Gallegos said ECECD’s proposed changes would mean a 20 percent to 30 percent increase for care providers and a $3 per hour increase in professional educator salaries.

“This really is a big step for us,” Gallegos said through an interpreter.

Gallegos said the problems in the early childcare industry impact parents because there is an early childcare desert, particularly for 0-to-3 year old children. She said she believes she saw more than 20 early childcare centers close during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jennifer Matthews, digital director of OLÉ NM, said the pay equity issue is both a gender parity and racial equity issue because most early childhood educators are women of color.

“It’s important they receive equal pay parity with public school educators,” she told NM Political Report.

Others who attended Gallegos’ day of action also spoke of racism they’ve encountered in varying ways within the industry.

Maria Hernandez, said she used to take care of children but she couldn’t qualify to operate a daycare when she first arrived in the U.S. because she lacked a social security number. Now she cares for her daughter’s children and works in the chile fields near Las Cruces.

“It’s racist because we’re immigrants. It’s based on racism. I can take care of children,” Hernandez said through an interpreter.

Hernandez said her daughter also works in the chile fields. When they are both working in the field, another family member cares for her daughter’s two children.

A parent, Lourdes Perez, said she faced barriers when placing her children because she does not speak English.

“I understand more than I speak,” she said through the interpreter. “If I go to a center, they do not see you or talk to you if you do not speak the language.”

Perez attended Gallegos’ day of action in support of early childcare workers receiving a pay raise.

Perez, the mother of six, who qualifies for state early childcare assistance, said that not only is she worried that without more support Gallegos’ center will close but that her children also carry this worry. Perez, who is also a Spanish speaker, said through an interpreter several times over that she felt safe leaving her children at Gallegos’ center and stressed how important that is to her.

Perez also works in the chile fields in the Las Cruces region. She said she must drop off her children at 4 a.m. and pick them up at 3 p.m. in order to work.

“It would be very difficult if she closed because of my income to leave my kids,” Perez said through an interpreter.

Perez said she met Gallegos by chance at a bus stop. She said one reason why Gallegos’ center is so important to her is that Gallegos works with her two-year-old to teach the child language skills. Perez said she also feels comfortable leaving her child who has been diagnosed with autism because Gallegos is able to work with the child. Two of Perez’s older children also come to the center after school.

“She helps them with homework,” Perez said through an interpreter.

Jennifer Martinez, a first-year student at Dona Ana Community College in Las Cruces, works for Gallegos, who is her mother. Martinez said she wants to follow in her mother’s footsteps despite the difficulties she has seen her mother face in operating an early childcare center.

She said an increase in wages would mean that she could earn a living wage.

“No other state in the nation is doing more to relieve the financial burden of child care for families and make sure early childhood educators are fairly compensated for the incredibly important work they do,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham through a news release. “This administration is committed to continuing our groundbreaking work to build an early childhood system that lifts up families and supports bright futures for our children.”

The public may submit written comments on the proposed rule change up to June 22, 2023. The ECECD will take public comment from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. June 22 in PERA Building, Apodaca Hall, 1120 Paseo de Peralta, in Santa Fe. 

“Our proposed changes add to a set of historic and generational investments in New Mexico’s prenatal-to-age-five system that will be a game changer for families and young children in our state,” said Elizabeth Groginsky, ECECD Cabinet Secretary, through the release.