A new report credits New Mexico with continuing to improve the quality of its early childhood education programs and investing more money in the initiatives, which many experts believe are the key to boosting educational measures and helping combat poverty.

The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, in its 2017 State of Preschool Yearbook, says New Mexico is meeting nine out of 10 benchmarks for providing high-quality prekindergarten and, for the second year in a row, ranks 20th in the nation for how much it spends per preschool student.

The yearbook, scheduled for public release early Wednesday, examines factors such as enrollment of 3- and 4-year-olds in quality preschool programs, state government funding for programs, teacher qualifications, professional development opportunities and the strength of preschool curriculum.

New Mexico falls short only when it comes to teacher qualifications, the report says, with just 60 percent of its pre-K teachers holding a bachelor’s or higher degree.

According to the study, the state increased its pre-K enrollment in 2017 to 10,380 children, an increase of more than 600 from the previous year. The state also increased its investment in programs by more than $744,000, spending about $52 million in 2016-17.

The state’s per-student funding on preschool dropped from $5,233 to $5,040, the report says, but remains higher than the national average of $5,005.

“New Mexico should be very pleased overall,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “Spending per child continues to be substantially higher than in the past, although it’s down a bit from the prior year. But that’s because you served more kids and added 3-year-olds as well.”

The institute’s report comes just a week before the state’s Legislative Education Study Committee and Legislative Finance Committee are set to discuss funding options for early childhood education. Advocates for such programs say they better prepare students for success down the line, improving students’ scores on proficiency tests and increasing graduation rates.

Nationwide, some $7.6 billion was spent in support of early education programs in 2017, the report says. Still, at least seven states do not have government-funded pre-K programs, and only three — Alabama, Michigan and Rhode Island — met all 10 benchmarks.

“When you look at some of the states that have stepped up recently — Alabama and West Virginia, for example — they are not high-income states, but they are states that have decided they need to put their money into investing in their future,” Barnett said.

“If you want good quality of life, lower crime, building a place that families and children want to live in, then that investment pays off.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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