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Lujan Grisham wants land grant to fund early childhood education

Lujan Grisham wants land grant to fund early childhood education
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U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham says if she’s elected governor of New Mexico, she will work to make a five-year, $285.5 million investment in early childhood education by drawing more money from a multibillion-dollar state land endowment.

“I look at this as a starting point … to get as close as possible to universal pre-K,” the Democrat said earlier this week in an interview with The New Mexican.

“It’s a conservative approach,” Lujan Grisham said, “intended to give legislators a way to work with us in a way that we can win.”

Advocates of programs for children from birth to age 5 have fought to convince the state Legislature to place a proposed constitutional amendment on voters’ ballots asking for approval to use money from New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, which draws fees from oil, gas and mineral extraction on state trust lands, as well as grazing and other land uses.

The fund, now estimated at $17 billion, for years has sent hundreds of millions of dollars annually to public schools, universities and other beneficiaries across the the state.

Many advocates of early education have sought at least double the amount in Lujan Grisham’s plan, which comes to about $57 million per year.

Though her approach would be more modest than the funding surge they have pushed for, lawmakers and advocates expressed support for it.

“That’s a good move,” said Allen Sánchez, president of the Catholic nonprofit CHI St. Joseph’s Children and a leading advocate for using revenues from investment fund for early childhood programs.

“Not quite where we want it,” he said of Lujan Grisham’s proposal, “but a good move. Nearly $60 million a year for five years is doable and realistic.”

Democratic state Reps. Javier Martinez and Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque, who have introduced measures in past years to pull as much as $150 million annually from the state land endowment, said they would back Lujan Grisham’s plan, though it falls far below the unmet need — estimated at $200 million to $400 million a year.

“Even near $60 million a year would be fantastic,” said Maestas, who plans to sponsor legislation again next year to draw more money from the permanent fund.

State Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and the powerful leader of the Senate Finance Committee who has long opposed pulling more money from the permanent fund, said Lujan Grisham’s plan doesn’t fly with him.

“When you open that door, that door remains open,” he said, “and I know a couple of other groups that want to open it even wider, and not just for early childhood education programs.”

Smith said a projected increase in state oil and gas revenues may provide the money Lujan Grisham and other advocates want for child programs.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, another Democratic contender for governor, sides with Smith. He said Lujan Grisham’s plan seems “like a short-term pilot program” and likely would not go into effect for nearly three years.

That’s because such a move requires the Legislature to approve a ballot question asking voters to decide on a constitutional amendment allowing the state to pull money from the investment fund. The next general election after the 2019 legislative session is in November 2020. If voters supported the amendment, it would not go into effect until July 1, 2021.

The amendment also might require congressional approval.

“We should be funding this with existing revenues, and we can,” Cervantes said of early education. “If we work it through the budget, it will become a recurring commitment to make year after year.”

The third Democratic gubernatorial candidate, businessman Jeff Apodaca, said that while he would support legislative efforts to pull more money from the permanent fund for early education, he would prefer to reallocate money already available in the Public Education Department’s budget.

“We have found about 8 percent of the PED budget — about $225 million — that either goes unused or goes out of state for consultants, PARCC tests or administrative costs that I do not see as productive,” he said. “Our proposal is to take that money and … allocate $165 million of that into early childhood programs.”

PARCC exams, standardized math and language tests for students statewide in grades three through 11, are administered by a coalition of states called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. All three Democratic candidates have said they would work to end the state’s use of these exams.

The candidates’ focus on finding a way to fund early childhood programs speaks to a growing belief among advocates that initiatives for kids from birth to age 5 — from home visiting for new parents to quality child care to prekindergarten — are key to ensuring children succeed in school.

Studies have shown that investments in such programs have a high return because they can help increase math and reading proficiency rates and graduation rates, decrease child abuse and the numbers of incarcerated youth, lead to higher wages and, ultimately, begin to break down a cycle of poverty.

But paying for programs often has stymied proponents and lawmakers across the nation. That challenge is particularly daunting in New Mexico, where lawmakers have debated for years how to expand pre-K opportunities in a poor state that consistently ranks near the bottom in national child welfare and education studies.

If the state does not find a way to invest more money into these programs, Lujan Grisham said, “We’ll never make our educational goals.”

She knows she would face a tough battle to win over Smith and other lawmakers who are reluctant to allow more withdrawals from the permanent fund over concerns about harming its long-term viability.

“They’re going to be really cautious,” she said, “so I’m looking at strategies that are conservative enough to get the money.”

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