New Mexico’s children have arguably taken the brunt as the state has struggled through tough budgets the past couple of years, with cuts to public schools, state colleges and programs such as home visiting and expanded school years.
But with oil and gas revenues re-bounding, could 2018 be the year of the child at the Roundhouse?
Students in New Mexico are nowhere near prepared to go to college, join the workforce or engage in our democracy, according to closing arguments filed this week by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and MALDEF, in a lawsuit against the state. The groups, representing families and school districts, say the state Public Education Department isn’t providing the resources needed to properly educate its students, in violation of the state Constitution. “The problem is that for years the state has starved our public schools and denied our children the educational supports and programs and services they need so that they can learn and thrive,” said Gail Evans, legal director for the Center, who said she expects a decision from District Court Judge Sarah Singleton by the spring. Lawyers for the state PED agree that New Mexico schools need to improve and concede the job of the schools is to make students college and career ready. But that’s about all they agree on.
At its most idealistic, New Mexico’s citizen legislature system draws people with expertise and passion for their fields who serve so that they can make a difference for the state and for their constituents. That’s why I’m excited to talk with state Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, and Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, about early childhood education in New Mexico. It’s the kick-off of New Mexico in Depth’s Coffee Chats series in 2018 that will explore important issues with informal talks at venues across the state. The event will be at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Beck’s Coffee House in Las Cruces. And we’ll be broadcasting the talk live on our Facebook page.
A couple of years ago a mother came to Ray Jaramillo, director of a childcare center in Las Cruces. She worked for minimum wage at Burger King, but was offered a supervisory position with better hours and a wage bump to over $9 an hour. She worried the extra money could cause her to lose childcare assistance for her two little girls. Between her and her spouse’s salary, their new earning power would push her family over the line for government-subsidized child-care. She had to figure out whether to take the promotion and risk paying thousands of dollars more each year for childcare, or forgo the extra family income.
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima has been hearing complaints and concerns from businesses throughout the process to increase his city’s minimum wage from the state minimum of $7.50 in 2014 to $10.10 an hour in 2019. There was a particular howl recently from the business community when a provision to index the minimum wage to inflation was scheduled to begin Jan. 1, 2018, something business operators and even the local school district was not prepared for because of an error in the ordinance’s drafting. The city council has since fixed the oversight. But child-care providers in particular have been bending Miyagishima’s ear because of fear over the effects on their payrolls and on parents who are receiving child-care subsidies.
Amber Wallin, Kids Count director for New Mexico Voices for Children, flashed up a photo on a screen during her presentation to childhood advocates and elected leaders in Las Cruces for the first Southern New Mexico Kids Count conference on Thursday. Anyone of a certain age would recognize the black and white photo of a motley bunch of kids in baseball uniforms: The Bad News Bears. Wallin said people in New Mexico were tired of being those Bears, tired of hearing the same old stats: 49th in child well-being, 50th in education, 49th in community and family. Some were tuning out, becoming numb, or throwing up their hands because it didn’t seem like there was anything they could do to change the situation. What is her answer to that? “Policy matters,” she said.
Jockeying for what little new money is expected for the coming fiscal year has already started. Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson is seeking $26 million more for her department, mostly to cover the growing cost of subsidized child care in New Mexico. She told members of the Legislative Finance Committee on Wednesday that the cost per child for day care and early education has risen from about $312 per month in 2012 to $535 in 2018. That reflects increases in reimbursements aimed at increasing the quality of programs and improving worker pay and education. While looking at early childhood education efforts in Dona Ana County I waded pretty deeply into the weeds on access to high quality childcare in the state.
Charlie Garcia is a bubbly 4-year-old with soft brown curls. Sitting down for a small group activity on a late-August afternoon at Alpha School in Las Cruces, she chatters with her teachers and friends. Sitting quietly nearby is Evelynn Aguirre McClure. Assistant teacher Brittany Polanco encourages the two girls and their classmate to build a house and fill it with drawings of their families. Using popsicle sticks, Polanco shows them how to make the outlines, flip the sticks over, glue them and then flip them back over so they stick to the paper.
The Affordable Care Act and its Medicaid expansion will live on following the death Sept. 27 of congressional Republicans’ last-ditch effort to repeal and replace Obamacare, but uncertainty remains for thousands of families in New Mexico whose children are covered through the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Congress allowed funding for the program to expire over the weekend. CHIP, which began under the Clinton administration, covers children from lower- and middle-income families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private insurance. CHIP covers 9 million kids in the U.S.
According to estimates from the state Human Services Department, more than 11,300 children in New Mexico are covered under CHIP, and if Congress does not appropriate money for the program the state would have to come up with $31.2 million to keep the program going, said Abuko Estrada, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty who works on health access issues.
How New Mexico educates its children will be in the hands of a state judge soon as a landmark trial against the state Public Education Department wraps up. Over eight weeks, the trial has featured dozens of witnesses and numerous citations to academic studies and policy reports. But in the end, the trial before First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton in Santa Fe boiled down to dueling worldviews. The plaintiffs — the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) — cited education outcomes for low-income, Native American and English language learners as evidence that New Mexico does not meet its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education for all children. And they recommend a wholesale transformation of the education system to target at-risk students earlier and with greater resources to help close the education achievement gap.