There is still no secretary of Early Childhood Education and Care, but the process to launch New Mexico’s newest department is up and running with help from a $5.4 million federal preschool grant.
That’s what lawmakers heard Thursday at a meeting of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
“We joke that the stars aligned when this grant came about,” said Alejandra Rebolledo Rea, director of Early Childhood Services for the Children Youth and Families Department.
The one-year planning grant is meant to create a comprehensive early education plan for New Mexico children from birth to age 5. When it was approved by the federal government in March, talk immediately turned to the idea of using the grant for the new early childhood department being debated in the Legislature.
Because it’s a planning grant, the money is paying for a county-by-county level assessment of the early childhood needs and gaps in coverage. There will be community meetings from August through October, focus groups and a statewide survey that will be used to create a three-year strategic plan for a seamless early childhood education system that will give the new department its “marching orders,” she said.
The New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership, the policy arm of United Way of Santa Fe County, was chosen to handle the outreach and write the strategic plan for the Early Childhood Department. The United Way is a New Mexico PreK provider and the partnership previously helped produce a business plan for early childhood based on a private-public model.
New Mexico In Depth asked CYFD whether there were concerns that New Mexico Early Childhood Development Partnership is affiliated with a childcare and PreK provider and might therefore have a predisposition to favor private over public PreK programs.
“The committee felt New Mexico Early Childhood Partnership’s knowledge of the community made them the best choice,” CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said, noting that the state procurement process was followed in making the selection.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, pushed back at the idea that an outside vendor would be giving direction to a state agency and wondered why New Mexico seemed to be going back to the drawing book with community meetings and data gathering after having done those things with the $37 million federal “Race to the Top” grant.
“It’s not that we don’t know what to do. I believe we don’t have a plan to do it. And I don’t know that this gets us there,” Stewart said.
Part of that plan should prominently include public preK, she said.
“I’m frustrated that the program I think is the best has 6,000 kids in it. It’s your last little bucket here. And that is the public school preK. So I want assurances that you are going to fully involve superintendents, principals, teachers, and the PED who have been working for 15 or 20 years on this.”
Rebolledo Rea said that while the plan will be written by an outside organization, the preschool grant team will be leading the strategy’s development. That includes two top deputies each from CYFD, the Public Education Department, Department of Health and the director of the newly reconstituted state Children’s Cabinet.
The preschool development grant will also finish creating an integrated data system that will track all children participating in early childhood programs in New Mexico. Right now, only children who have taken part in New Mexico PreK are tracked at the PED to see how services have changed their educational outcomes.
The goal is to identify children who have gotten home visiting, child-care assistance, preschool through either the state or Head Start, early intervention services for disabilities and other services so that the new department can track all of those programs’ effectiveness and do research on what interventions work and in what combination.
It’s a big task. The state plans to incorporate seven years of data and then start tracking children moving forward. The data project was part of the earlier Race to the Top grant but wasn’t completed and New Mexico’s aging and disconnected data systems are part of the problem.
In fact, CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock told the Health and Human Services Committee Thursday that “only through profound neglect for decades do you get a data collection system as bad as the one at CYFD. It’s likely that our ability to provide data to the public is hampered until we move to a new system,” according to reporting from KUNM.
The creation of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department was one of the most high-profile outcomes of the 2019 legislative session.
The new Cabinet-level department will bring programs for children from prenatal to age 5 all under one roof, with the state hoping to maximize resources and develop a comprehensive plan for early childhood education.
Most LESC members were pleased with progress on the new department, but wanted to ensure that their area were part of the needs assessment progress and that rural areas and hard to reach groups such as Spanish speaking households were consulted.