As usual, Chris Chandler sanctimoniously lectures us to justify her obsession with taxes, because “They are, after all, our children.” However, we do not need to raid our Land Grant Permanent Fund or raise taxes. There is a better way for NM. We need better collaboration and cooperation between our existing federal and state programs.
ANTHONY — A tall chain-link fence splits the preschool campus behind Anthony Elementary in southern New Mexico: federally funded classrooms on one side, state-funded classrooms on the other.The fence serves as a literal and symbolic divide segregating two sets of classrooms outfitted with the same child-size tables, chairs and toys; two sets of highly trained teachers; two separate playgrounds — and a bitter competition for 4-year-old children.
As New Mexico has expanded early education for toddlers over the past decade, the state has created a system that bars providers from mixing state and federal funds in the same classroom. It’s a policy – not a law – that effectively separates kids into rival programs, often divided by income.Head Start serves the lowest income families in New Mexico; the state programs serve families from a range of income levels.Instead of cooperating, state and federal programs are competing. One of the consequences is that New Mexico taxpayers are shouldering more of the cost of paying for preschool programs, while federal money is being sent back to Washington even as thousands of needy children go unserved.
“We have this crazy quilt pattern of some private day care for 4-year-olds, public preschool for 4-year-olds and federal Head Start programs that are all in competition,” says Fred Nathan, executive director of Think New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based think tank focused on issues of child well-being. “Trying to create a coherent system is a little bit like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube.”This article is part of a year-long reporting project centered on child-wellbeing in New Mexico, produced by Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that seeks to empower New Mexicans to demand honest and effective public policy.
An investigation by Searchlight New Mexico found multiple instances of federal preschool programs, known as Head Start, losing money or slots for kids. At the same time, the state is paying to educate more 4-year-olds in pre-Ks in private child care centers or elementary schools.A Head Start program in Doña Ana County returned $75,000 to Washington in 2015. In the two years following the startup of state pre-K in 2005, a Las Vegas program sent back $850,000. Around the state, Head Start directors say, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been lost over the past decade, with millions at risk.“I’ll be the first to say we need state pre-K,” said Joseph Griego, who runs Head Start at the West Las Vegas School District. “But what I can’t understand is why we as a state can’t seem to collaborate together to be able to serve the children, specifically in counties where Head Start programs are established. It shouldn’t be a competition.”
Some Head Start administrators have scrambled to “convert” 4-year-old preschool slots to programs for younger kids, which can be more expensive. Presbyterian Medical Services’ Head Start north of Albuquerque lost 56 slots last year; the Las Vegas program relinquished 60 slots in 2014; Albuquerque’s YDI also gave up about 140 slots over the past four years.Once the federal money or slots are lost, they’re gone for good.“We had been hearing concerns about the funding for 3- and 4-year-olds,” says Michael Weinberg, early childhood education policy officer at the Thornburg Foundation in Santa Fe. “Are those different funding streams competing with each other? Were we reverting federal funds?”The answer to both questions was “yes,” according to a 2017 study funded by Thornburg. The study found that collaboration between state and federal preschool programs is “inconsistent and fragmented.”The mistrust between them dates back years. It sharpened in 2013, when the state issued a damning report on Head Start based on data compiled from three of 35 providers.
The Legislative Finance Committee requested data of all Head Start programs but most didn’t comply; numerous providers told Searchlight they worried how the data would be used.The LFC report cast doubt on whether Head Start improved school readiness and recommended that the state assume oversight and control of Head Start funds, which go directly to providers.Not all studies share that opinion, however. In 2017, the Albuquerque Public Schools looked at one of the state’s largest Head Start programs, YDI. It concluded that the program improved students’ rates of attendance and early reading and math skills into second grade – despite the extreme poverty many Head Start kids face.While the rate of child poverty has risen in New Mexico over the last decade, Head Start now serves some 600 fewer kids than it did 10 years ago, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
During the same period, state pre-K enrollments have grown. Yet the state isn’t serving all its kids. Not even the neediest. Nearly half of 4-year-olds and more than three-quarters of 3-year-olds in New Mexico aren’t attending any kind of preschool program, according to the NIEER.“
The state Public Education Department acknowledges there is more work to do in terms of sharing best practices, braiding funding and family engagement. But PED says there are barriers that need to be overcome, noting PED pre-K programs don’t include 3-year-olds, and most Head Start programs and classrooms serve both 3- and 4-year-olds. Also, Head Start is family income-based, while N.M. pre-K serves children who live in communities with Title 1 schools.
PED says it has initiated discussions and is exploring ways to collaborate between the two programs. We hope those discussions are fruitful because New Mexico cannot afford to plunder future state funding while returning federal dollars, particularly when those are geared toward helping our children succeed in the classroom.