Santa Fe’s New Universal Pre-K Plan Shows How Localities Can Lead

02/14/2017 12:40 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2017

In her recent confirmation hearings, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos painted a bleak picture of education policy: less funding, more privatization, less emphasis on effective interventions like Head Start.

For New Mexico, this federal retrenchment is especially ominous: The state just received a “D” rating for public education, only a third of eligible low-income students are now able to access public pre-school programs, and, with the legislature battling budget shortfalls, there are few promising signs of state action to fill gaps in early childhood education funding.

Still, at the local level, this challenging year could bring transformative change. 

In Santa Fe, Mayor Javier Gonzales just introduced a measure to create about a thousand new, high-quality pre-K places for families with demonstrated need.  The plan would employ about 200 new educators and staff and ensure that nearly all the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds can attend a first-rate pre-K program. Crucially, at a time of tight municipal funding, the program would pay for itself through a new revenue stream—a two-cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks.

Early education is arguably the most cost-effective investment government can make.  Conservative economic analyses show that each dollar of early childhood education spending yields about $3.30 in benefits, ranging from reduced needs for remedial classes, grade retention, and special ed to parents’ increased work productivity when their children can access quality full-day childcare.  And these numbers can’t fully account for the long-term advantages of early learning: more creativity, resilience, social engagement, and lifelong career and earnings potential.

The new Santa Fe initiative is specifically designed to prioritize the highest-need children. By drawing on existing local resources, including a leading community college program, the plan is to ramp-up quickly to serve the roughly 50% of local kids who now lack access to pre-K.  By directing a portion of the approximately $7.5 million planned program to outreach and accessibility services, the city is aiming to make families’ participation quick and seamless.

Recent polling shows that the plan is popular.  But it’s still not a certainty.  While most of the City Council seems supportive, the measure will be brought to an initial vote on March 8.  City residents will then have a say in the coming months with a special referendum.

Big soda is, predictably, on the attack.  With sugary drink consumption falling steadily over recent years, big beverage corporations are dead-set on defending their turf—even if that means attacking an early childhood education initiative. Coke, Pepsi, and other large corporations in the sector are dispatching lobbyists and PR firms to flood the small city’s town halls, Council meetings, and airwaves with breathless warning messages about lost freedom, economic hardship, job cuts, and future budget shortfalls.

Still, success is looking likely.  People get the importance of early childhood education.  Throughout the country, there’s growing awareness that massive sugar consumption means undue risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, challenges to cognitive function, and other serious health risks. While the tax is modest, studies around the world demonstrate that it can impact purchasing decisions, and, in turn, improve public health outcomes. Contrary to the industries’ claims that decreased soda consumption will jeopardize funding pre-K, respected economic analyses show that tourism and population growth easily compensate for reduced purchases.  Cities from Boulder and Berkley to Philadelphia and San Francisco have implemented successful taxes on sugary drinks, demonstrating the soda industry’s dire prophesies to be baseless.

To lead in the new era of federal retrenchment, localities have to stand up for social progress, defying newly-hostile government officials like Betsy DeVos, broken industries like Big Soda, and the legions of cynical lobbyists they employ to do their dirty work.

Santa Fe is a small city, but it’s already demonstrated itself as a trend-setter on policy issues from water conservation to climate policy to the living wage.  It’s time for cities—large and small—to get bold, share best practices, and take responsibility for creating a positive future.

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