While legislators debate how to fund early childhood education programs, some think more efficiency and better services can be achieved by consolidating early childhood programs. Senate Bill 106 would create a cabinet-level Early Childhood Services Department with oversight of existing programs like home visiting and pre-kindergarten that are currently scattered through various state agencies.
“We have a public education department, we have a higher education department, but we don’t have that focus on that early childhood educational component,” said Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, who represents most of Socorro County.
In addition to better coordination of services, Morales said consolidation of programs would maximize taxpayer dollars.
“I think that we have dollars that go unspent. We have, unfortunately, programs that aren’t run as efficiently as I would like to see,” Morales said.
According to a Legislative Finance Committee Early Childhood report, both state and federal funding for early childhood services totals more than $230 million.
A review of early childhood programs by New Mexico’s Legislative Finance committee found evidence that lack of coordination led to duplicated services, resulting in the loss of $1 million in federal funding.
During a Senate committee hearing last week, Morales made the case that early childhood services need to be centralized in order to become more efficient in their coordination and to decrease duplicated services.
“We don’t have the focus on the most important and critical stage of a child’s life and that’s the early childhood stages,” Morales told the committee. “That’s what this bill sets out to do.”
But other legislators questioned how the state would pay for a costly reorganization and redistribution of personnel and resources that would be necessary to create a new agency.
During the bill’s Senate Judiciary committee hearing, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, questioned the timing of proposing to establish a new department given the state’s current strapped budget.
“I struggle to understand, Mr. Chairman, the efficacy of creating a new executive department at a time when we don’t have the resources,” Candelaria said during the committee hearing.
Those concerns are valid, Morales said, but the new department would consolidate rather than expand programs, and associated cost savings would surpass the expense of creating a new executive department.
The bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary committee, but Morales said he’ll continue to bring the issue forward. “I think that the need is there,” he said. “And, I think that if we are going to make an investment in jobs and our economy, we have to make an investment in the early childhood stages of a child’s life.”
Robert Salas holds NMID’s 2016 fellowship for a student journalist involved with the New Mexico News Port at the University of New Mexico.