New Mexico has opportunity to learn what works best from two years of extraordinary innovation

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The 2022 regular legislative session will be the second under the persistent shadow of COVID-19. For those of us who focus on child and family well-being, the situation is simultaneously dire and hopeful. The dire: Families with children, especially those with lower incomes, have been slammed by the simultaneous impacts of school and child care closures, job losses, and the anxiety and grief that have characterized this time for many. 

The hopeful: The sudden loss of in-person schooling and child care has renewed public focus on the importance of these sectors. States have received federal funding to stabilize them from the impacts of COVID, allowing new resources to flow into schools, child care, internet connectivity and other longstanding needs. 

During the session and in the coming year, our team at the University of New Mexico Cradle to Career Policy Institute will watch to see what New Mexico decides to keep from the pandemic, and what the state casts aside. In our policy and personal lives, the pandemic has offered a complex mix of things we are eager to lose forever, alongside those we hope to maintain. 

In the child care sector, COVID-19 has brought great instability for providers faced with decreased enrollment, family and provider fears about COVID exposure, and unpredictable closures and quarantines. Yet this year has also seen a dramatic expansion in eligibility for child care assistance. Child care assistance helps lower-income families afford care, and New Mexico has expanded the program to include many middle class families, who have long struggled to afford the high cost of high-quality care.

How long will this policy last? We will watch to see whether state leaders view this expansion as a temporary recovery measure for workers, or as a permanent move toward more universal child care access. This question is entwined with the ongoing issue of who governs federal COVID relief funds. While expanded child care access appears to be a priority of the governor, it is less clear whether legislators share this view.

This is also the last regular session before a scheduled public vote in fall of 2022 on whether New Mexico should tap its Land Grant Permanent Fund to support additional funds for early childhood and K-12 education. The vote will be the culmination of a decade-long policy conversation, and comes at a historically unique moment. New Mexico is enjoying an abundance of resources thanks to federal relief dollars and high state revenues, as well as an avalanche of critical needs. The Legislature will not determine the outcome of the Permanent Fund vote, but we’ll watch to see whether the prospect of the vote factors into early childhood funding and policy decisions.  

Expanded child care assistance is just one COVID-era policy that leaders may decide to keep or adapt. Although distance learning in K-12 schools was challenging for many families, others enjoyed the flexibility and found new forms of family engagement. These families may benefit from increased online and hybrid options in the future. Home visiting, a service for families with or expecting new babies, saw some families thrive through video visits who might have been hesitant to accept in-person services in their homes. Other families longed to welcome home visitors back into their living rooms. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, with lawmakers setting policy under conditions of extreme uncertainty. As difficult as this is, the possibilities are also exciting: New Mexico’s leaders have a unique opportunity in 2022 to look back at two years of extraordinary innovation and decide which parts to fund and sustain.

Hailey Heinz is a research scientist at the University of New Mexico Cradle to Career Policy Institute, which produces research, evaluation, and analysis that supports thoughtful and informed policymaking for children and families. The views in this column are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the view or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.

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