Governor names D.C. official as early education secretary

Originally published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, written by Jens Erik Gould

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham named a top District of Columbia education official as New Mexico’s first secretary of early childhood education as the state aims to significantly increase spending in the area.

Elizabeth Groginsky, who is assistant superintendent of early learning for Washington, D.C., was appointed as the Cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s newly created Early Childhood Education and Care Department, the governor announced Wednesday.

Groginsky will join an administration that is putting heavy emphasis on early childhood education. Not only will she head a newly created agency, but she comes to the state as officials also are proposing the creation of a new permanent fund dedicated to early childhood and requesting a substantial surge in funding for child care, prekindergarten and other programs during the next fiscal year.

“This is frankly more than a decade in the making,” Lujan Grisham said about the appointment at a news conference Wednesday. “New Mexico leaders have long known — because the data is clear — that if we invest early enough in our children, there is no limit to the successes that we can achieve and have on behalf of our children and families.”

Groginsky, who is originally from Colorado, has had a long career in early childhood education that began when she was a researcher at the University of Colorado, Denver.

Since then, she has worked as director of the Head Start State Collaboration for Colorado and as director of early childhood education for United Way Worldwide.

Groginsky also was chief operating officer of the nonprofit Earth Force, which helps young people improve the environment, and executive director of the Early Childhood Data Collaborative, a coalition of nonprofits. She has been at the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education since 2014.

At the news conference, Groginsky said the program she has overseen in D.C. has helped children there become more prepared for kindergarten because they have had greater access to early childhood education. The District has seen a 10 percent increase in its maternal labor force participation rate, attributable to its pre-K program, she said.

“The time to act is now,” she said about early childhood work in New Mexico. “We know better and so we must do better. The research is clear: The first five years of a child’s life set the foundation for their future development, health and educational and academic outcomes.”

Groginsky has a master’s degree in social science from the University of Colorado, Denver and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland in College Park.

Under legislation passed earlier this year, pre-K programs currently under several state departments will move to the new centralized early childhood department, which formally begins operations in July.

The new department is asking for an additional $84.2 million in revenue from the state’s general fund for early childhood programs, a 50 percent increase over current levels, according to a report issued last week by the Legislative Finance Committee. That would come after multiple increases, as recurring early childhood funding has been rising steadily for years.

That legislative committee also released an analysis in August reporting “mixed performance” from the state’s existing early childhood programs, noting a lack of coordination among providers. The report called on lawmakers to spend state resources in a way that avoids lowering teacher qualifications and hurting the effectiveness of programs.

On Wednesday, education experts and officials said they were optimistic about the new department.

“I think there will be better coordination between [the state Public Education Department] and other prekindergarten programs, which is important because at the end of the day, the vast majority of those kids are ending up in our public school kindergarten classrooms,” said Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools.

While the Public Education Department manages tuition-free pre-K programs in public schools, all private pre-K programs are currently licensed through the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

In 2018-19, the pre-K population in New Mexico was less than half that of the kindergarten population, according to data from the Public Education Department.

Santa Fe Public Schools beat that average with 533 pre-K students, compared to 892 kindergartners, a rate of nearly 60 percent. In Albuquerque Public Schools, the number of pre-K kids was just under a third of the number of kindergartners.

While expanding pre-K capacity at public schools is an important part of eventually offering universal access to programs, lawmakers and policy experts said the effort also requires strengthening the network of private and federally funded pre-K sites across the state.

“The whole purpose of the new department is to align and integrate all the different prekindergarten providers to reach the outcomes we want,” said Katherine Freeman, president of United Way of Santa Fe County. “If we are able to do all the stuff that we’re talking about, it’s the potential to end the generational poverty that plagues this state.”

Currently, United Way of Santa Fe County offers pre-K and home-visiting programs, in which a social worker visits a child’s home between a mother’s pregnancy and the child’s third birthday to teach parents about best practices for healthy development. Oversight of both of those programs will move to the new Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

State Rep. Rebecca Dow, a member of the House Education Committee who has operated pre-K programs, said boosting the number of workers in early childhood education and other services is also key to expanding services.

The state is increasing demand for early childhood workers by 1,000 a year, she said, but in 2018-19, only 62 college and university students in the state received bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education or child development.

“We need prekindergarten teachers and early childhood education specialists,” said Dow, a Republican from Truth or Consequences. “But we also need social workers and behavioral health workers. We are not going to move the needle on student outcomes unless we talk about what’s happening outside the school day.”