Early childhood department has governor’s backing

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A child plays with beads in a New Mexico PreK classroom. A proposal for an Early Childhood Education and Care Department would bring together all children’s program for children ages 0 to 5 into the department, including New Mexico PreK administered both the Public Education Department and the Children Youth and Families Department. (Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth)

It was a powerhouse show of support last week for a plan to create an Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

“Any other Cabinet secretaries here?,” Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, asked during public comment Feb. 13 on Senate Bill 22, which would create a department focused on providing education and services for children from birth to age 5.

Sponsored by Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, the bill would put child care licensing and services, early childhood education, home visiting, child behavioral health and services for children with disabilities all under one roof. After technical questions were raised at the Feb. 13 hearing, the bill is expected to be heard Wednesday morning before the Senate Rules Committee.

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque

Those services are currently scattered across four departments — Children Youth and Families, Public Education, Health, and Human Services. Every one of the secretaries or secretaries-designate stood in support of a planned department that would take programs, functions — and money — from their departments.

Oh, and a former and current lieutenant governor dropped by to say a few words.

It was a clear signal that the Lujan Grisham administration is firmly behind the plan to build a department to coordinate programs for infants and young children and give children’s services Cabinet-level clout.

This department will “play an essential role in child wellbeing and the improvements the governor expects and, indeed, demands,” Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said in an email. The department is not “larger government for its own sake, it’s better government” that would identify needs and gaps in services and address them, develop new data systems to measure outcomes and lead on workforce development.

With all the support, however, there’s no guarantee Padilla’s legislation will clear the Legislature as the clock ticks down on the legislative session. The bill has yet to clear its first committee and, if and when it does, it still faces two more Senate committees — Education and Finance — the Senate floor and then the same process in the House – all in under 30 days.

Among the mandates for the department would be to align programs to reduce redundancy and competition and to unlock federal dollars to help the state pay for early childhood programs and services. The proposed agency would be tasked with building up the early childhood workforce, and preparing a four-year early childhood education and care plan that would give the state data on at-risk children, measure how effective early childhood programs are and come up with recommendations for financing the early childhood education and care system.

Right now, New Mexico spends more than $350 million yearly on programs for young children between those four departments, but Padilla said lawmakers still have no sense of how much is really needed and if those dollars are being spent on effective programs.

Katherine Freeman, executive director of Early Childhood Development Partnership, has put a lot of research and effort behind the department. Her organization toured the state to hear from parents, early childhood educators and providers and other advocates, and did much of the work undergirding the bill. The plan has the backing of national and New Mexico early childhood education and care associations.

The goal, she said, was to align and hold all the programs to account, make sure people running different childhood programs are talking to each other and using a common data system, and giving young children a seat on the Cabinet. “It’s about getting it all right, for everybody, under one department, zero to 5,” she said.

There was no opposition to the bill in the room, which drew a full crowd of supporters from the early education field and business community, including the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce and the state Association of Commerce and Industry.  

The bill seeks a one-time $2.5 million appropriation to set up of department. CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock noted at the hearing that the state has received a $5.4 million federal grant to map early childhood education needs and build a high-quality early learning system, which could be used toward setting up the department. The grant also comes with the opportunity to seek additional money.