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Lt. Gov. Howie Morales highlights early childcare education for national research group

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, pictured taking the oath of office in 2019, spoke about New Mexico’s early childcare education policy during a virtual press conference on Tuesday. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican via AP
New Mexico bucked national trend with more four-year-old children enrolled in pre-K than in 2019

An annual report shows that the number of four-year-old children in New Mexico attending pre-K has increased since 2019.

The National Institute for Early Education Research, which researches and advocates for early childcare education policy, highlighted New Mexico’s early childcare investments by inviting Lt. Gov. Howie Morales to speak Tuesday during a virtual press conference about the state’s efforts.

The NIEER, based out of New Jersey, produces an annual report ranking states on things such as universal early childcare education and quality early childcare education. This year’s report showed that while fewer four-year-old children attended pre-K in 2022 than in 2019 nationally, New Mexico bucked that trend and the rate of four-year-old children in the state enrolled in pre-K is higher than it was in 2019.

NIEER highlighted New Mexico’s gains in early childcare education during a separate press call on Tuesday. The group invited Morales to share with other policy makers and advocates some of what New Mexico has done to improve its overall numbers.

Morales said policy makers were hearing from advocates that there needed to be a state agency to oversee early childcare education. He said early childcare was spread out over five different state agencies. He introduced a bill to create such a department in 2018, when he was a state senator, but said it “didn’t gain traction.”

Morales said one thing that stood out to him during his years in the state senate was the need to consider education more holistically, rather than as competing funding pipelines. In the beginning of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s tenure in office, she appointed Morales in 2019 to act as cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Public Education Department. But there was “an idea that what we really needed was to have an agency that focused on the most critical stages of a child’s life,” he said.

In 2019, the state enacted a law creating the Early Childcare Education and Care Department. The agency officially began its work in July 2020 with Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky to lead it.

Morales said one of the biggest hurdles the state had to overcome was how to better compensate early childcare educators even though they work in the private sector.

The NIEER report found that New Mexico meets 9 out of the 10 benchmarks for quality pre-K programs. The benchmark it didn’t meet was in early childcare educators who have BA degrees.

Morales said the state is providing pathways for education and credentialing through help with student loans. He mentioned that the state has incentivized early childcare centers to pay its employees at least $15 an hour and lead teachers to make up to $20 an hour.

Morales also highlighted the fact that the state makes early childcare free to families who make around 400% of the federal poverty level. He also credited the additional distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which increased the Early Childcare Education and Care Department’s budget by 68% for Fiscal Year 2024.

Morales said that early childcare education “really is an investment” and he predicted the state would see a “return on investment” in the future in the form of lower populations in corrections facilities and lower rates of health disparities. When asked by the moderator about New Mexico’s future in early childcare, Morales said the state has “put itself in the position, regardless of the turn of the political wheel, to create sustainable programming.”

NM Political Report is a nonprofit public news outlet providing in-depth and enterprise reporting on the people and politics across New Mexico.