Guaranteeing early childhood education is groundbreaking | Editorials

The right for younger children to have an education soon could be included in the New Mexico Constitution.

For those of us in New Mexico, the push to expand early childhood education is hardly news.

We know that early childhood education backers have worked for much of a decade on the issue. They have wanted the state Legislature to approve a proposed constitutional amendment diverting money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to provide a consistent stream of funds to pay for educating children under 5. If passed through the Legislature and approved by voters, the money would help provide universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, improve child care and enhance home-visiting programs for new parents.

We know that with a permanent fund now around $22 billion, diverting 1 percent would not damage the body of the fund, thus protecting future generations while taking care of today’s pressing needs.

We know that the amendment — finally — has its best opportunity to win approval in the Legislature in 2021, with voters having the final say. Polls show voters support the measure.

The House of Representatives can be counted on to pass the early childhood education measure. It has done so half a dozen or so times in the past, only to see the amendment stumble in the more conservative Senate. House Joint Resolution 1 already is through one committee and is now before the House Education Committee.

In the past, it’s the Senate that has blocked the proposal. But the 2021 Senate is different this year. Sen. John Arthur Smith no longer is chairman of the Finance Committee where the amendment has been blocked before; he lost in a Democratic Party primary. His successor on the committee, Sen. George Muñoz, is no liberal, but we expect him to allow the proposed amendment to reach the Senate floor for a vote.

Voters deserve an the opportunity to approve or not. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham backs the measure, even though her signature isn’t required on a constitutional amendment; what the governor already has done is provide a structure to support early childhood education through a new department to help train workers, find space for classrooms and ensure the quality of instruction.

What perhaps New Mexicans haven’t appreciated is what all of this means: Adopting the amendment would make New Mexico the first state in the nation to guarantee a right to education to children younger than 5.

That would be quite an achievement for a state that has struggled since statehood to educate its children. Today, New Mexicans are known to shrug and say, “We’re at the top of all the bad lists.”

Becoming the first state to pledge to educate young children — through a constitutional amendment, no less — will place New Mexico high atop of a good list.

Enacting this amendment also would begin to address underlying structural issues that have caused children to struggle at school. The advocates who began pushing for a stable way to fund early childhood education a decade ago understood then and now that all children have incredible potential. When children lack the resources to become their best selves, all of society loses out.

Education begins at home after birth, when babies play peek-a-boo with their dads or listen to stories their moms are reading. It flowers through play, whether building with blocks or dragging sticks through the dirt. Children discover the basics of the alphabet, figure out how to add numbers or learn the parts of the water cycle. Early lessons become more complex as children progress through elementary, middle and high school — with young people on the brink of adulthood using knowledge gained to launch into adulthood. They can soar, or fall, and the quality of education directly impacts the quality of their lives.

That’s why early childhood education is essential. It levels the playing field. In 2021, the Legislature can break new ground and approve a stable source of funding for early childhood education. New Mexico can lead the way.

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