After years of organizing, for the very first time, the state Senate Finance Committee in a 7-4 vote passed House Joint Resolution 1, which allows for a constitutional amendment to withdraw early childhood education funds from the Land Grant Permanent Fund. Now the legislation heads to a historic vote on the Senate floor. If it passes, it will be a huge step toward making New Mexico the first state to enshrine education as a constitutional right and define education as starting at birth.

“I’m glad the Senate Finance Committee voted to pass HJR 1 with 1 percent for early childhood. The cost to ensure every preschool teacher receives a living wage will be $50 million, and keeping 1 percent for early childhood is crucial. I look forward to seeing HJR 1 as it continues onto the Senate floor,” said Emma Mazzullo, a member of the working families organization OLÉ (Organizers in the Land of Enchantment), which has been organizing across the state to ensure early childhood education is given to every child.

With a new slate of state legislators, voters who support early childhood education and a governor who prioritizes education, this year’s legislative session is expected to usher in a permanent source of funding for this critical issue for families.

Early childhood education advocates have been pushing for such an amendment for nearly 12 years, but it never passed out of the Senate Finance Committee until this year because of the opposition of former Chairman John Arthur Smith. Smith, a Democrat, lost his primary election in spring; a Republican took his seat, but in other Senate districts, progressive Democrats were voted in.

This change of political landscape is certainly due to parents and teachers working together to organize their communities to vote for candidates who prioritize education for all children.

“Systemic reform of our child care system starts with us by way of organizing the community,” stated Wendoly Marte, Economic Justice Director for the national organizing group Community Change Action. “New Mexico is leading the way with women — caregivers and mothers — on the front line who are fighting for a comprehensive child care system that ensures every family has access to high-quality child care and that gives early childhood educators a living wage.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has a strong track record for education advocacy and ran her 2018 campaign for governor on an 11-point education plan. This plan included her intention to pass a constitutional amendment that would permit the state to distribute more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund, also known as the Permanent School Fund, to fund early childhood education.

Voters in New Mexico have signaled in the past they support using 1 percent of the Land Grant Permanent Fund for early childhood education. In a recent survey sponsored by CHI St. Joseph’s Children and conducted by LD Insights LLC, the majority of registered voters polled indicated they would be willing to vote for such an amendment. Of voters polled at random, 44 percent were registered as Democrats, 30 percent were registered as Republicans and 24 percent were registered as independent. Seventy-five percent of all respondents said they would support a constitutional amendment, with only 9 percent opposing such a measure.

Passing a constitutional amendment to allow for a withdrawal from the Land Grant Permanent Fund involves a series of steps. First, both chambers of the New Mexico Legislature need to pass HJR 1 with a simple majority. This will then ensure the amendment is on the ballot during the next election, which could be as soon as fall. If the majority of voters support the measure, the state constitution will be amended to make early childhood education a constitutional right.

“After 11 years of pushing for this important investment in our youngest New Mexicans, we hope that the Legislature will seize this moment and act with courage to finally make access to early childhood education and care a reality for all our state’s children,” said Erica Gallegos, OLÉ’s policy director.

Paying teachers living wages also will help to retain quality educators for young children. Because early childhood educators make an average of $9.66 an hour, on top of being required to attend school and professional development, many of them move on to teach in the public schools once they’ve earned their degree because they pay better. “Children at their most vulnerable lose quality teachers as a result,” Gallegos explained. “The fund is for our future. Children are our future, so let’s use the fund for them.”

Emily Withnall is a fellow with Community Change, a partner with OLÉ.

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