Q&A: Lujan Grisham says early childhood ed will be ‘hallmark’

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Courtesy of New Mexicans for Michelle

Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks with some New Mexico prekindergarten students.

New Mexico In Depth is speaking with the candidates for New Mexico governor on the issues of early childhood, child wellbeing and education. Michelle Lujan Grisham is the congresswoman from Albuquerque, and is one of three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination.  This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Sylvia Ulloa: Can you lay out what early childhood education would look like in New Mexico under your administration, and how you would get early childhood to rural New Mexico?

Michelle Lujan Grisham: Early childhood education would be a hallmark of the administration. We want every child to have universal access. We do not create cooperative leveraging between the Children Youth and Families Department’s early childhood and Head Start. So we’ve got fewer Head Start dollars in the state.  

They have insufficient numbers of CYFD folks who can do both oversight and a circuit rider team that builds capacity and deals with the rural areas, including looking at where it might be appropriate to combine 3- and 4-year-olds, and what kind of educators you would need in that system.

You determine that getting to kids, particularly in at-risk families, happens immediately. You do statewide home visiting. You do a much better job of identifying at-risk families, assigning them to personnel in CYFD. And not just CYFD: leverage Department of Health, Human Services Department, Aging (because grandparents are raising grandchildren) and the Public Education Department.

SU: As you mentioned, early childhood programs exist at PED, CYFD, at the Department of Health, in the private sector, in the nonprofit sector. How do you coordinate all that?

MLG: You bring back a Children’s Cabinet. And you set up — with the governor in the room — a coordination plan and everybody does it. People can be very territorial in their departments. So, you’ve got to line everybody up; bring in Head Start money; make sure everyone is coordinating, and it’s an all-out administrative effort to make sure that we are providing meaningful access for early childhood education.

SU: You support using the Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for preschool. How much do you think is a responsible amount to divert from that fund. And how would you change that proposal to get more legislators on board — because right now it can’t get out of the Senate.

MLG: That is not an easy lift with the current makeup of the Legislature, and instead of attacking what they’re doing, I am clear that they have a fiduciary responsibility that they treat very seriously. This is an endowment fund to meet our constitutional obligation to pay for education, K through 12.

We think we can get $175 million out of the permanent fund. Here’s what we’re gonna propose: Taking another 1 percent of the fund. It’s overperforming. We want to give voters and the Legislature the ability to manipulate that 1 percent. We’re gonna look at a formula that says if the fund is dropping too quickly, then they drop that percentage.

Now, we’re proposing $285 million over five years, so we’re going to look at other funding streams from e-cigarettes, taxes, methane mitigation or recapture. We’re gonna have to think about other diverse, but robust, funding sources to get you to 80 percent enrollment. My attitude is, you want 100 percent, but administering and getting folks in can be tough. So 80 percent will be our threshold; our goal will always be a hundred percent.

SU: If you don’t get this proposal passed, how exactly do you maintain a steady funding source for early childhood education?

MLG: Part of it is how effectively we’re leveraging and identifying new funding sources — and you’d better get the economy right. I am incredibly motivated to get the economy right, which is why we’ve got a nine sector plan, which invests in the areas where we already have great potential, or are doing well, but there’s been no real strategy or investments to make them move.

A couple of examples, and the obvious one, this state must move into renewable energy. This is a significant source of economic growth and new jobs. We are leading the country in wind investments, but we just don’t have a strategic sense about how to utilize, manage, grow the economy, even in rural areas.

If you have an idea, and you have a strategic plan, and you align your departments, and you show real outcomes, and the economy is moving, those funds will embed themselves in your priorities and that’s exactly what I propose to do.

SU: Under the Trump administration, there are proposals to significantly cut back on SNAP and Medicaid, and add work requirements. These programs are highly utilized in New Mexico by children and families. As governor, how would you mitigate the effect of those cuts, if they happen.

MLG: Two things: There are already work requirements in SNAP. This governor’s already being investigated about falsifying SNAP records and trying to keep people off. So one, you have to have an attitude that these benefits are critical to the health and wellbeing of families and children. I think it’s really easy for Republicans in Congress to set this narrative that there are able-bodied people on SNAP, and they try to minimize the number of disabled adults, children, seniors, active military men and women and veterans who are on SNAP. The food program has the lowest rate of fraud of any of the assistance programs that we provide through the federal government.

These work requirements are a bureaucratic nightmare that even Republican governors do not want. It makes absolutely no sense; it’s just gonna hurt your neediest families.

So we’re either going to get (SNAP) reauthorized, current requirements, or we’re going to come out with another bite at this apple, and go to conference with the Senate. And let’s say I’m totally wrong, and they somehow manage to get these draconian work requirements passed by the Senate. A governor and Cabinet have to fight against things that don’t make sense for our communities. When they said to a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country — right when I got into the Department of Health — that they wanted us to do abstinence only (sex education), I flew to Washington, D.C., and convinced them to give us a waiver. We were allowed to keep the money, but do comprehensive sex education. And we dropped teen pregnancy rates.

So you have to be ready to get a waiver to these new proposals, and be very clear about how you win them.

SU: Medicaid expansion is one of the things Gov. Susana Martinez approved, and it’s been a success story here as far as covering more children and helping to fuel the health-care industry. How are you going to deal with that?

MLG: There are rumors in Congress that this administration is looking at implementing some of these changes in a per capita way that would hurt states that are largely Democratic. It’s illegal. You gotta look at the constitutionality of these draconian decisions, and you work with your attorney general, and you sue the federal government and you stop them from doing it.

You look at waivers to the highest degree possible, and you work with all of your providers to do that. And if all of those fail, we have to be ready. I’m ready to do a comprehensive health care delivery redesign, working with all of the stakeholders that would include things like looking at the Health Care Security Act (which I think holds great promise for states like New Mexico), regional delivery plans and Medicaid buy-in. The Senate is now looking at Medicare buy in.

The nice thing about New Mexico is, what is often our Achilles heel, that we’re so small and we’re so rural, with our telehealth opportunities and our Federally Qualified Health Centers and our community health, we can actually cover 2 million people and get it right. That’s one of the reasons I want to come back. That’s an area I excel in and have expertise in and I’m ready to get done for New Mexico.

SU: I’d let you get back to adverse childhood experiences. We have a lot of horrific child abuse cases. Do you think changes at CYFD are headed in the right direction?

MLG: I am really upset at CYFD. You can not have any vacancies for critical positions. These are folks that are responding to complaints, and they are the front line in making sure that we’re keeping our kids and our fragile families from falling deeper into at-risk situations and poverty. And they aren’t doing that.

They aren’t working with educators and PED. They aren’t reforming and looking at, with the court system, our children’s code and what changes need to be done. And they aren’t looking at foster care from both a productive safety-net situation and an accountability situation. You have to do both. You don’t get to choose one of those.

AUDIO: A model to help troubled kids

SU: Right now the state PED is being sued over its funding for schools and for the education results for Native Americans, English learners, special ed and low income  students. Not getting into the specifics of your education plan, how would you deal with the lawsuit?

MLG:  I have no doubt that the identification of underfunding will occur, and the governor and the Legislature are going to have to embrace making sure that meeting our constitutional requirements gets back into the funding formula.  

We created the worst possible environment for education, but we have to take it as an opportunity. We have to fully fund the schools, we have to be clear about what outcomes we want. We have to give schools the flexibility to meet the needs of students, and we’ve got to be partners — there’s no partnering right now in state government. Everybody is just pointing fingers. Bring everybody to the table and get them to work together. The same thing with bilingual education. We ought to be leading the country in language preservation.

Via @Michelle4NM on Twitter

Michelle Lujan Grisham during Teacher Appreciation Week.

AUDIO: Top NM school uses own testing method 

SU: You say you don’t believe in high-stakes testing. You’d like to eliminate the A through F grading system for schools. How do you assure a parent that their child is getting a decent education in New Mexico without some accountability?

MLG: Saying you don’t want PARCC should not be misconstrued as saying you don’t want accountability or data. We gotta have data. I gotta know exactly what’s going on with our students and what strategies would make the biggest difference so that they’re proficient in math and science and the arts.

We know that STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics), not just STEM, holds the greatest promise for student achievement and giving students the choices that they need so that they’re graduating and successful in whatever path they undertake, whether it’s apprenticeships, or trade, or higher education, or entrepreneurship.

So we’re immediately gonna undertake looking at New Mexico assessment tools, and we’re going to have to do that in a transition. So, you just throw it all out, and then you’re done? You can not do that. You have to have a transition plan that gets you away from the things that don’t work, and fully implements the things that do.

That’s the difference between me and most of the candidates for governor, that they don’t have any experience in implementing new programs and strategies in government.

SU: You and several of the other candidates have talked about how we need to change the revenue situation in New Mexico, but I would imagine Steve Pearce would say revenue means taxes. How do you do that in a fair way and not hamper economic development in the state?

MLG: It’s a healthy balance. You got a governor now, and I would guess that Steve Pearce will say exactly the same, because he’s been that guy in Congress, which is that there’s a pledge. No new taxes. What this governor won’t tell you is that she just pushed those tax burdens and liabilities to local government. They all had to raise taxes, and then they had to put those funds toward all the things that they refused to do in this administration, like behavioral health.

I’m not taking any pledge about saying I will unequivocally do X, and I will unequivocally not do Y. Everything is a balance looked at from the lens of what is in the best interest of your stakeholders, which is the citizens of the state.

So we’re going to do a tax commission. I really want to look at every possible aspect, including supporting middle-income working families and small businesses, cause I don’t think we’re doing enough there. We’re gonna have to have the attitude that we want everybody paying their fair share. That means that I am open to a variety of areas for productive tax reform.

This is a governor that in a really tough economic environment — I don’t diminish the recession and the oil and gas drops, and the sequester — didn’t leverage, didn’t grow the economy, didn’t lead. It was a perfect environment for a governor that was trying to destroy state government.

Then you could point to all these other influences and say: it’s not my fault. It is your fault. That’s a leadership job that requires experience and vision, and a can-do attitude about “New Mexico is open for business” in a way that doesn’t take advantage of New Mexicans, but builds on our potential.

Discaimer: NMID did not fact check every statement made by candidates in these interviews.

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