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New Mexico Early Education Bill: NM Could Become First State With Pre-School Funding Constitutionally Guaranteed

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NEW MEXICO EARLY EDUCATION
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New Mexico is weighing a bill that could make it the country's first state to explicitly protect early education funding in its constitution.

For the last three years, New Mexico Senate majority leader Michael Sanchez (D) has introduced a bill that would let the state vote on a constitutional amendment to fund preschool by an additional $100 million annually. The money would come from an annual disbursement of 1 percent of New Mexico's Land Grant Permanent Fund, the country's second largest in-state land fund with more than $10 billion. The fund is treated as a rainy day fund, and the bill has a trigger that would stop the disbursement should the fund be significantly devalued.

In previous years, the bill was only introduced in the Senate, then locked up in the Senate's finance committee. But this year, the bill also was introduced in the House, which was expected to vote on the measure as soon as Friday afternoon.

"We're trying to run it both ways, hoping that if the House passes the bill, it will influence the Senate," Sanchez said. (The bill passed by a thin margin late Sunday.)

Sanchez said he first came up with the idea after speaking with his constituents. New Mexico's education system is in poor shape; only half of Latino students graduating high school on time. But studies show that every dollar put into good preschool programs yields about $7 in return as a student grows up and participates in the economy.

"If you take care of kids on the front end, they'll be less likely to be in jail and in hospitals," Sanchez said. "As a lawyer, I see the back end a lot. I see the end result. I represent poor people, a lot of people who've had problems, who may be incarcerated." Better help at the beginning, he said, would help them. The measure has garnered the support of a coalition of unions, parents and community groups in New Mexico.

Even if the bill does get through the House, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith might not advance it. "They don't have the votes," he said, on a local television program. Smith's secretary said he was unavailable for comment Friday.

Smith has said he opposes the bill because the land grant is meant to be a rainy day fund.

Preschool has been in the national news ever since President Barack Obama proposed a new federally and state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds in his State of the Union address.

According to Steve Barnett, an early childhood education expert who oversees Rutgers University's National Institute on Early Education Research, only one state -- Florida -- includes preschool in its constitution. But in that case, the law mentions only quality, not specific funding levels. "An amendment required them to provide high-quality preschool at accepted professional standards and has all this language, but it's completely ignored in reality," Barnett said. New Jersey's constitution states that the "legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years."

The constitutional amendment wouldn't specify what type of early care the funds would pay for -- rather, the money would be divvied up by the state legislature for preschool, prenatal care, child care subsidies and home visits .

Esteli Juarez-Boyd, a 29-year-old Albuquerque mother of three, is hoping the bill moves. Her 8-year-old son went to preschool, but due to financial concerns and New Mexico narrowing eligibility for child care subsidies, her 5-year-old, Tony, did not.

The differences between the two children are stark: By the time he entered kindergarten, her older son could spell his name and count to 50. Tony can spell his name, but doesn't know what capital letters are -- and he can only count to 25.

"My 5-year-old starts school this July but he's not owing to pick it up as quickly as my 8-year-old," Juarez-Boyd said. "He has spent the last seven months at home instead of in the classroom."

She is now one of 4,500 parents on the waiting list for state-sponsored early childhood education. And outside of her own household, she feels that early education funding would "create a better relationship with education earlier to help curb the dropout rate."

UPDATE/CORRECTION: This story was updated to include news of the bill's passage and context about education in New Jersey's constitution.

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