As early education fight rages in Roundhouse, more schools face closure

Martha Shweder, director of the Playschool for the Arts, leads a music lesson Tuesday with preschool students. The school serves 58 children ages 1 to 5. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

The proposed constitutional amendment to tap New Mexico’s $13.1 billion land-grant endowment to help fund early childhood education appears dead.

A mix of Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee stopped the initiative Monday night on an 8-2 vote. Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Questa, said the bill was “temporarily tabled,” but even the measure’s die-hard advocates concede that the odds of it passing now are minuscule.

“It doesn’t seem like much of a possibility. Still, I’m in the business of believing in miracles,” said Allen Sanchez, who led the campaign for the initiative on behalf of the state’s three Catholic bishops and St. Joseph Community Health.

Less than three days are left in the legislative session, and none of the 50 Republicans in the 112-member Legislature has ever voted to dip into the endowment to help pay for early childhood programs. Sanchez said the measure probably could not clear the Legislature and make the November ballot without support from at least some Republicans.

During Monday’s two-hour hearing, proponents of early childhood education said the program could turn around New Mexico’s economy by creating more success stories. Infants and preschoolers who receive a quality education would be much more likely to become wage earners than dropouts, they said.

Miguel Gomez, also of St. Joseph Community Health, said New Mexico’s ranking of 50th among the states for child well-being makes it critical to fund the program.

All 10 senators on the finance committee agreed that early childhood education is a means to producing more high school and college graduates while cutting prison populations and welfare rolls.

Most committee members, though, said they were not persuaded that the state’s Land Grant Permanent Fund should be the funding source for early childhood programs.

The constitutional amendment, sponsored by Sen. Michael Sanchez, the Democrats’ majority leader from Belen, calls for 7 percent to be taken from the endowment annually. A total of 5.5 percent would continue going to public schools and the other 1.5 percent to early childhood education.

Michael Sanchez actually tried to amend the bill downward, to reduce the total taken from the fund to 6 percent a year, with 1 percent or about $110 million annually going to early childhood education. The finance committee rejected that amendment before blocking the bill altogether.



Sen. John Arthur Smith, the committee chairman, said he was wary of using the endowment for another program.

The fund now pours about $600 million a year into public programs, mostly K-12 schools. Taking more money from the fund for another project, no matter how well-intentioned, could erode the endowment and weaken the state budget, said Smith, D-Deming.

Smith had come under heavy public pressure to give the bill a hearing in his committee. He declined to do so last year, killing it unilaterally.

The counterpoint to Smith’s arguments came from Sen. Sanchez. With an economist at his side, Michael Sanchez said the fund would continue to grow at a rate of perhaps 3 or 4 percent a year, even if an extra $110 million a year were spent on early childhood programs. The early childhood program would sunset in 10 years.

Michael Sanchez said he did not want to surrender on his bill, even though the legislative clock is ticking.

“It needs resuscitating,” he said of his proposal.

Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, suggested that the constitutional amendment should be heard by the full 42-member Senate, not buried in a committee. She was one of the two senators who voted to keep the initiative alive. The other was Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City.

Morales said the amendment probably cannot clear the Legislature and make the ballot. But, he said, the message he took from the rest of the finance committee is that early childhood programs should be funded by a general revenue stream from the state budget.

Morales said finding the money for early childhood programs in the state budget should become the Legislature’s priority.

Contact Milan Simonich at 986-3080 or msimonich@sfnewmexican.com.

(7) comments

Brigitte de Saint Phalle

We need a pilot test of an early childhood program. This is affordable out of revenues. Great programs can be ineffective if they are poorly implemented and rolling out a statewide program had better work on the first try. A pilot program will produce conviction about early childhood education and an experienced team to scale it up. Oh, and expect problems with the pilot program as teachers and parents learn. Yes that will delay things a bit but if it works everyone will be on board.

Here's something novel: Perhaps we might consider growing the private sector as a source of revenue instead. You know, that old ( now radical ) idea of creating good paying jobs so folks can support their families. We cannot find a government solution for everything - when we are not building commerce and industry. Moreover, we are now exporting what success stories we do create through public education because young people cannot secure stable meaningful reasonably paying employment here.

Steve Salazar

If the state wants to subsidize day care, it should find another way to fund it.

Pierce Knolls

If these early childhood programs are so important, we should find a way to fund them within the budget, instead of stealing from the children of the future by raiding the permanent fund.

Emily Koyama

Education initiatives in this state seem to have a common theme- spend more money. This proposal to raid the permanent fund, and another to raise property taxes in Santa Fe so every student can have an I-Pad are examples. Jeeze, the new Agua Fria Middle school construction site looks more like a college campus (Remember the one room schoolhouse?).
Since New Mexico already spends more on education per student than many other States that get better results, perhaps we should spend smarter, not more.

Mark Ortiz

"Jeeze, the new Agua Fria Middle school construction site looks more like a college campus (Remember the one room schoolhouse?)."

This will now be the norm with Santa Fe being a sanctuary city and the exploitation of the 14th amendment allowing anyone to illegally enter, have a child on American soil which unlike almost no other country in the world, automatically makes them a citizen. Hopefully the school district studied the reasons for hemorrhaging schools. It seems they don't. Do renovations at Kearny take into consideration projected student population in say 3 years or will they have to add AGAIN.

Steve Salazar

Those anchor citizens are less of an issue to me than are the children born in other countries who can get a free education in this country, even though after being educated, can't legally work in this country.

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