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New Mexico's Early-Learning Efforts Show Promise, Pitfalls, Report Finds

A new report on early-childhood programs in New Mexico finds that investments in prekindergarten have resulted in stronger reading and math skills for children who participate in the program.

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Analysts released the accountability report Wednesday, August 16.

The study by  the state's Legislative Finance Committee found that in addition to raising reading and math scores, the state's pre-K program also lowered special education and retention rates for participating students. These students also performed better than their peers who hadn't attended pre-K on standardized tests in the 3rd grade, and this was true for both students from low-income families and their more privileged classmates.

The National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) found that New Mexico spends more on pre-K per child than the national average of $4,976. The state ranks 20th for state spending at $5,233 per child. It also enrolls more 4-year-olds in pre-K than the national average, 33 percent versus 32 percent, which ranks it 16th in the nation.

The report also found that students who attend the state's K-3 Plus program made significant learning gains over their peers who didn't participate. K-3 Plus is an extended school year program for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade who attend high-poverty schools with a large number of at-risk students. It's designed to give these students a "jump start on the new school year." The report found that when this program is combined with pre-K students are able to close the achievement gap by the time they enter kindergarten.

Drawbacks Also Found

But the report also asserts that for the program to do the most good, students should have the same teacher during the school year that they had during the summer, and that's not often the case. It also notes that for it to be the most effective it should start close to the beginning of the next school year, but in some districts there's a gap of nearly 40 days.

The report also notes that Head Start enrollment continues to fall in the state and that the state lags behind the national average on Head Start teacher qualifications. In New Mexico only 39 percent of Head Start teachers have a bachelor's degree or higher in early-childhood education or a related field, while federal standards require 50 percent of the teachers in the program to have that level of education.

In recent years, the state has increased funding for early-childhood education programs such as pre-K, home visits, and child-care assistance. New Mexico spent more than $350 million on early-learning initiatives during the last fiscal year, and costs are expected to rise. For example, the state spends $100 million annually on its Childcare Assistance program, and the report notes that conservative estimates suggest that may have to rise by $20 million in fiscal year 2019 and 2020 to keep up with the higher costs of care.

State Sen. Howie Morales, a Democrat and member of the Legislative Finance Committee, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the state should be prepared to spend more.

"Many times you hear at sessions that money doesn't equate to better results, but this report gave a different story," he said. "We have to find the investment. ... We don't have a choice."

Photo: A young child works on a writing assignment. (Pixabay)

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