Evidently, not all money spent on early childhood care is created equal.
A recent Legislative Finance Council report has found that prekindergarten programs provide more benefit than money spent for child care. The state is spending more money on child care rather than education for youngsters. By studying where dollars go and what works, New Mexico must begin to make smarter spending decisions.
Educational opportunities, it seems, pay more dividends than simply babysitting.
State Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela of Santa Fe wants his fellow legislators to use the report to create better spending priorities. He plans to work with Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration and other lawmakers to change the flow of dollars.
Of course, spending for prekindergarten has a different goal than simply providing child care. Pre-K enrolls 4-year-olds a year before they otherwise would start school, at a cost of some $2,900 per student. The goal is to make sure every child enters regular public school prepared and ready to learn. Children with an early educational boost continue doing better all the way through third grade. Early intervention also can reduce the need for special education services and help more children learn to read in a timely fashion.
The goal for child care, though, is less about children than adults. State funding to help parents pay for day care is there more to ensure that parents can work and less to help children prepare for school. That’s why, as a measure of educational success, child care almost always will fall behind preschool. To say the cost of child care exceeds the benefits isn’t exactly accurate — the benefit is that a parent can work, not that a child will do better at school.
None of that is to say that New Mexico shouldn’t change its priorities so that money spent on children is about their success, not about whether Mom or Dad can get a job. Right now, the state is spending some $231 million on early-childhood programs. Of that, The Associated Press reports that $98 million is going to child care assistance for some 20,000 children from low-income families. The children range in age from babies to 13. Then, another 10,000 children are in state-funded pre-K, at a cost of $37 million.
With money in short supply, it only makes sense for the state to direct more of its precious dollars at programs that show educational benefits. New Mexico must expand prekindergarten and other early childhood programs — home visiting programs also show extended benefits — and spend fewer dollars on basic day care. With solid pre-K programs, parents still can work and children will receive care. They’ll need attention over the summer, too, something low-income children, especially, need. Otherwise, they lose their educational progress.
Rep. Varela is right to want to use this study to focus on how best to spend state dollars. Poor children need a boost, and they need it early in life. If New Mexico taxpayers are spending millions, let’s spend the money in the smartest way possible.