Invest in our future.
House Joint Resolution 1 (HJR1), the constitutional amendment to increase the distribution from the Land Grant Permanent Fund (LGPF) by 1% to fund early childhood programs, sits in the Senate Finance Committee (SFC). If the SFC approves of HJR1 it will go to the Senate floor for a vote to see if the people of New Mexico will have a say in the funding for early childhood programs. The real issue comes down to whether we invest in the children today with early childhood programs or keep all of the money invested in Wall Street for the children of the future.
New Mexico has approximately $18 billion in the LGPF and pulls about 5% a year for distribution to the public schools. Opponents say that increasing the distribution would reduce the future returns of the fund. However, many noted economists indicate that investing in early childhood programs has a larger return on investment than investing in Wall Street. Investments in children and education cannot be lost during economic downturns or market “corrections”.
When a five or six year old starts school, much of his or her future success is already pre-determined by the lottery of birth. Children born into poverty, through no fault of their own, have the life success deck stacked against them. As a group they will score lower on achievement tests, fall behind in school, be less likely to graduate, be less likely to attend college, be more likely to need public assistance, and will earn less as an adult. The achievement gap at age six is already as much as two years and likely to grow larger. The remediation costs for society are great. It is time to invest in early childhood education as a hedge against future costs.
While education can be the great equalizer for children raised in poverty, current programs don’t start early enough, don’t recognize the value of family involvement, and tend to focus on cognitive skills to the exclusion of character skills. These character skills are patience, persistence, self-control, and communication skills. These character skills are necessary for the child to acquire the cognitive skills typically taught in school.
Character skill development works with and compliments cognitive skills. Children who know how to learn, learn more. However, character skills development is usually ignored or minimized in many early childhood programs that try to “catch-up” under-privileged children. Character skills are correlated with higher wages, better health, and other measures of success. Such skills lead to greater achievement in higher education. Learning to learn should be a goal of early childhood programs.
The research is clear: High quality early childhood programs have a major impact on the future outcomes for children and are cost effective. In two landmark studies, disadvantaged children were randomly assigned to a treatment or control group and then followed over the ensuing decades.
In the Perry Preschool Project, 3 and 4 year olds in the treatment group were provided a preschool curriculum that emphasized self control, perseverance, and social skills along with more traditional cognitive school skills. In addition, parents were provided with training in parenting skills and how to provide enrichment opportunities. The children were evaluated over the next 40 years.
In the Perry Project the calculated rate of return on the investment was from 6 to 10% per year for each dollar spent. The children in the treatment group showed greater productivity, less need for remediation, reduced interactions with the criminal justice system, and a lower level of social dependency. This rate of return is greater than the historic return of the stock market. It was a good investment.
In the Carolina Abecedarian Project, parental education was coupled with cognitive stimulation, self-control training, health care, and social skill development for the treatment group of a randomly assigned cohort of disadvantage children. These children were followed through the next 30 years. The results were equally clear. The children in the treatment group had significantly higher levels of educational attainment and were employed in more skilled professions than the control group. There were also dramatic effects on lifelong health outcomes. Treatment participants had lower blood pressure, reduced obesity, and fewer heart problems. Participation resulted in increased prosperity and better health.
With these dramatic results in controlled experiments as a guide, why are we not investing more in high quality early childhood programs to reduce the readiness gap? We spend a large number of dollars on remediation, adult literacy, and job training when we know there is a problem and we get a questionable return on the investment. It is more important to invest in early childhood education and therefore reduce the need for remediation. It is more important to prepare than to repair. This is not to imply that we should defund remediation in exchange for early childhood education, but we need to greatly increase our investment in early childhood education.
What course should we follow in New Mexico? The public knows that something needs to be done. Legislation that aims to retain third graders who are not reading proficiently is founded on the premise that social promotion hinders their future. Funding for adult literacy is aimed at improving the economic opportunities for those people. Programs to improve college readiness are attempts to encourage students to reach post-secondary education. However, these programs are trying to remediate, at great expense, problems that could have been avoided in the first place. I believe that there is broad support for increased funding for early childhood education. We have had modest increases in funding for K-3 Plus. There have been small increases in the budget for child care programs but with questionable results.
The Legislature has been reluctant to greatly increase the investment in early childhood education. The rationale given for not increasing the funding has been a mixture of unsubstantiated effectiveness, lack of money for early childhood, and money spent on other priorities. Most recently there has been a move to use some of the money flowing into the Permanent Fund as a mechanism to fund early childhood education. This has broad support from the public but has been stalled in the Senate Finance Committee by Senator Smith because he believes it would hurt the long term growth of the fund. However, Senator Smith’s Senate Finance Committee has not promoted nor found another funding source yet the Committee has supported tax cuts, tax credits, and has funded other programs but research does not support their return on investment.
New Mexico needs leadership now to invest in our children for our future. Early childhood education helps children learn how to learn and helps parents foster a brighter future for their children. Early childhood education pays dividends for many years to come and the public knows we need to close the achievement gap before children begin school. Investments in early childhood education are the only long term way to substantially improve education in New Mexico. If the Legislature won’t find a means to greatly expand the funding for early childhood education, then it needs to get out of the way and let the people of New Mexico vote on whether to use the Permanent Fund to support early childhood education. As the saying goes, “It’s our money” and if we want it invested in early childhood education, then we should be allowed to do so.