Learning Matters Kate Noble: Let’s not squander a great opportunity in early childhood investments

March 27, 2023, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Written by Kate Noble


In a world of superlatives, it’s hard to find words strong enough to describe the immense opportunity New Mexico has ahead in early childhood education.

In last November’s election, we became the first state in the nation to make support for our youngest children a constitutional right. Stunningly, more than 70% of voters approved spending from the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood.

Now, with an additional funding boost from the just-concluded legislative session, we have a chance to knit together a strong, comprehensive system of early care and education. We are fortunate to have support from the recently created cabinet-level Early Childhood Education and Care Department — as well as from a committed community that includes the department’s secretary and executive team and, importantly, the governor.

As anyone who has worked in the early childhood sector knows, we face many challenges.

We must address these challenges because 85% of the human brain develops in the first five years. This simple fact is why supporting young children is absolutely fundamental.

This also means supporting the early childhood workforce is essential. Our committed and loving early childhood professionals have not all benefited from the raises school staff have received, yet they deal with many of the same issues, including difficult behaviors, staffing shortages and exposure to contagious illnesses.

Early childhood workers need a wage and career framework that moves towards higher pay. Wage increases should correspond to professional qualifications and experience, ensuring expertise in early childhood development. An appropriate framework for early childhood support in New Mexico should build in crucial factors like pay increases for bilingual staff and trauma-informed training, as well as provisions for on-the-job training that is aligned with coursework.

Early childhood education and care suffers from decades of underinvestment and from bureaucratic layers of regulation and oversight that can be heavy and sometimes punitive. Improvements could include basing payments on annual or semiannual, rather than hourly, commitments; coordinating inspections between state and local regulators; careful implementations of new requirements; plus, ongoing efforts to simplify forms and administration, and remove barriers for non-English speakers.

We need engaged local communities and collaboration for the benefit of young children and their families. Public schools need to work with Head Start programs and other providers to meet the wide variety of schedules and needs families face, including for robust special education support.

Hospitals and medical providers need to work better with families and to offer referrals for home visiting and early intervention agencies. Colleges, chambers of commerce and other community institutions also need to step up, organizing for improved public awareness and ongoing pressure for more support and improvements.

All of this is crucial right now, so that we can keep the momentum and unlock the potential we have here in New Mexico. Economist James Heckman estimates for every dollar invested, taxpayers get a 13% per year return on investment through better education, health, and social and economic outcomes later in life. It also means today’s parents can be active in the workforce knowing their children are in safe, high-quality care.

Across all politics and persuasions, New Mexicans can change the world for the better. Taking care of children is a foundational human imperative. In this area of unusually clear consensus, we can strengthen our overall community fabric by building on the strong foundation we have. Let’s not miss the opportunity of a lifetime.