Early childhood department brings fresh opportunity


New Mexico is about to have an early childhood department, taking a major step forward toward early childhood education for all New Mexico children. Senate Bill 22, which creates the department, has passed and been signed and has been signed.

The new department, called the Early Childhood Education and Care Department or ECECD, has ambitious goals. It is to be the coordinator of all early childhood programs delivered in the state, from home visitation for infants through pre-kindergarten education, providing “a system of seamless transition fromprenatal to early childhood programs to kindergarten,” as the legislation states. Its function in part is to prevent duplication and waste of resources while directing resources to places where they are most needed, areas of poverty and especially areas with high Native American populations.

The department itself will not run most programs. Just as the Public Education Department does not directly run the schools but provides coordination and oversight, this department will coordinate and oversee early childhood programs, including licensure of programs operated by private providers.

The big controversy regarding early childhood education has not been about creating an oversight function but about allocating money from the state’s Permanent Fund to pay for it. This bill does not address that. The Permanent Fund proposal was in a separate piece of legislation that did not pass.

There has been debate about whether the new department was necessary, or whether the functions should have been tacked onto an existing department. In my opinion, the new department was a good decision.

Creating a new department is probably not much more expensive than adding on to an old one. Cabinet secretaries in the new administration are earning $128,000 a year. Top deputies earn $90,000 or more. The difference is not significant. Having one less layer of bureaucracy is probably beneficial.

The ultimate size and cost of the new department are not clear from legislative staff analysis. The department will start with a few million dollars for transition, including funds transferred from other agencies, as functions and programs are moved over.

New Mexico spends substantial money on early childhood services. According to legislative staff analysis, total spending on early childhood programs in New Mexico for FY19 was over $366 million, including both state and federal funding. The three largest programs in New Mexico for the early childhood population are Head Start, childcare assistance, and prekindergarten programs.

One good feature of the legislation is liberal use of terms like cooperate, coordinate, and consult. The bill is peppered with instructions to the new department to cooperate with other departments. Moving some functions from one department to another is not enough to ensure smooth coordination. This new venture will require leaders to be managers, and managers to be coordinators.

It’s worth remembering why we’re doing this. Early childhood education increases the likelihood that children will succeed in school, which increases the likelihood that they’ll graduate; this in turn increases the likelihood that this generation of children will become successful and productive adults, taking good care of their health, behaving responsibly, paying taxes, contributing to their communities, avoiding drugs, not committing crimes, and in turn raising healthy families.

So, 20 years from now, perhaps the news in New Mexico will not be dominated by crimes, opioid deaths, the rate of diabetes or the decline in our state’s population. Perhaps New Mexico be spending more money supporting young people through college and less money sending them to prison.

The future of New Mexico depends on bringing up our standards and our ranking in all those national measurements that place our state low in health and literacy and high in crime. The 21st century will not be sympathetic to states that allow themselves to be left behind.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2019




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