More money, more time in budget for New Mexico prekindergarten program

April 4, 2023, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Written by Margaret O’Hara

Early childhood education, a longtime wish for proponents who said it could change New Mexico’s long-term education and economic fortunes, is about to receive a gusher of funding that may soon be felt by some of the state’s youngest citizens and their families.

Early Childhood Education and Care Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said Tuesday the state’s budget for fiscal year 2024, passed by the Legislature earlier this year, includes nearly $100 million for New Mexico PreK, the state’s voluntary, tuition-free preschool program.

Groginsky said infusion of pre-K funding — which includes dollars from both the state’s general fund and the Land Grant Permanent Fund following voter approval of a constitutional amendment — will created a “historic opportunity” to expand services by 40%, adding thousands of pre-K slots across the state.

At the local level, the arrival of additional funding was met with open arms and heightened expectations. Proponents from throughout the state have long contended a better early education will eventually pay dividends, with better educational outcomes as children move into the state’s K-12 system.

“This is a game-changing moment in pre-K. We are ascending to a whole new level,” said Kate Noble, the vice president for policy and stakeholder engagement at the Santa Fe-based early childhood advocacy organization Growing Up New Mexico.

The change will allow New Mexico PreK providers to expand their operations from six hours a day during the school year to full-day, full-year prekindergarten, said Katherine Freeman, president and CEO of Growing Up New Mexico.

Created by the 2005 New Mexico Pre-Kindergarten Act, New Mexico PreK is a state-run program that funds preschool services at both public and private schools, while offering families free access to prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, Freeman said. She also touted the quality of the program, set by state requirements.

“The New Mexico PreK program has been studied deeply by the Legislative Finance Committee, and the outcomes for children far surpass outcomes of child care or other things,” Freeman said.

Expanding public prekindergarten programs has long been a priority of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who lauded the state’s advancements in pre-K during her State of the State address in January. Her budget recommendation for fiscal year 2024 included a $20 million increase to expand access.

“Our work in early childhood education and care is garnering national attention, because in New Mexico, virtually every family qualifies for free child care and we now have universal access to pre-K for four-year-olds,” Lujan Grisham wrote in her budget recommendations before the 60-day legislative session. “We now know that the earliest years of life are the most important for developing minds, and we’ll continue to invest accordingly.”

Since the start of New Mexico PreK in the early 2000s, programs have slowly been growing more comprehensive, Freeman said. Initially, it was half-day pre-K and only during the school year. Since then, it’s expanded to six-hour days but retained its school-year schedule.

The additional funding will allow providers who want to offer year-round, full-day programs the ability to do so.

The option, Freeman said, will be a boon for many working families, in addition to being high-quality and free. Although there will still need to be some wraparound services for families early in the morning or later in the evening, Noble said full-day pre-K will get close to doing it all.

“This is everything. It’s free. It’s equitable. It’s administratively streamlined. It’s high-quality. It’s pretty darn close to full-day, full-year,” she said. “Ultimately, all of that is really good for lots and lots of families. This stabilizes the whole care and education system.”

“It is all the things: better for providers, better for parents, better for kids, better for everybody,” Freeman added.