Wanted: $ for Pre-K; Needed: Quality & Accountability

Early Child Education (ECE) appears to be one of the few topics in education people from all stripes and political leanings can agree about. Initiatives such as Head Start, the Federal program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, provide evidence that four-year-olds perform higher than their nonparticipating peers on literacy assessments.

Building off the widespread understanding of the benefits of early-childhood programs, Representatives Moe Maestas (D - Albuquerque) and Javier Martinez (D - Albuquerque) have introduced House Joint Resolution 1 (HJR01) which aims to amend our state constitution for $100+ million more a year for ECE. This funding would come from the much debated Land Grant Permanent Fund, with a current principal near $15 billion. We currently use roughly 5% of the fund for public schools, hospitals and other sources. HJR01 aims to increase this to 6%.

HJR01 has already cleared two committees along party lines and currently sits with the House Judiciary. If HJR01 makes it out of that committee it then goes to vote by all 70 members of the House.

Ideological battles about the Land Grant Permanent Fund and whether a constitutional amendment is the best way to increase ECE funding aside, the conversation is sorely lacking in two areas: one, ensuring pre-K services are high-quality and, two, emerging evidence that the positive effects of preschool programs don't last long.

In a recent paper in the Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, researchers found "many interventions...demonstrate initially promising but then quickly disappearing impacts." In other words, the short-term benefits are evident but the long-term impacts are not nearly as clear. Given that the U.S. spends more than $15 billion annually on these programs, and New Mexico is pondering a significant increase in our own spending, it is vital we ensure they work and we don't "send good money after bad".

After analyzing 67 high-quality programs, the researchers learned a few things:

  1. The positive effects of Head Start mentioned above disappear within a year;
  2. Much of what children learn in early-childhood intervention programs are skills they'd typically pick up in kindergarten or first grade anyway;
  3. As a one time intervention, ECE programs don't have much depth of impact on intelligence, conscientiousness or the "30 Million Word Gap"; and
  4. For lasting effects, there must be a focus on skills which otherwise wouldn't develop. In other words, the intent and quality of instruction matters greatly.

All this is not to say ECE programs should be discounted. In fact, the opposite is true in New Mexico where only 29% of our 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K. These programs have great intentions and possibility, but neither is inherently enough to get the results our students need. They deserve both expanded access to programs as well as assurances that what they're learning is meaningful and lasting. When it comes to early childhood education, how we spend our limited dollars matters just as much as how much we're spending.