- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico’s investment in early childhood education over the past decade has dramatically increased the number of children enrolled in preschool programs, but state and federal officials say more needs to be done.

Federal statistics released this week by the U.S. Education Department show around 40 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs in New Mexico during the 2012-13 school year.

That’s in line with the national average, and New Mexico is actually ahead of other Western states, including neighboring Colorado and Arizona.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan stopped at an early childhood care center in Phoenix on Tuesday to highlight the need to expand access to preschool. Duncan and the Obama administration are pushing to include preschool and other early learning programs in the looming overhaul of federal education policy.

“Expanding access to high-quality preschool … will narrow achievement gaps and reflect the real, scientific understanding that learning begins long before a child enters kindergarten,” Duncan said in a statement.

New Mexico’s work to boost pre-K programs spans both Democratic and Republican administrations, and the budget approved by lawmakers during the recent 60-day session includes nearly $25 million more to expand programs across the state.

Public Education Department spokeswoman Ellen Hur said New Mexico has tripled its investment in public pre-K since 2011. That has resulted in the number of enrolled 4-year-olds increasing by nearly 150 percent.

In 2012, the state applied for a $37.5 million multi-year federal grant that’s now being used by different state agencies to develop the infrastructure to provide more comprehensive, high-quality services and outreach to families with young learners.

“While this progress is encouraging, too many of New Mexico’s kids still are not able to jump-start their academic career with high-quality Pre-K,” she said. “We are committed to continue working to expand opportunities like these for all of our state’s young children.”

Finding funding for pre-K in some other states has been an uphill battle.

In Colorado, where pre-K is partially funded, demand far exceeds supply. Multiple efforts over the years to raise taxes to pay for expanding free programs have failed.

Federal statistics show only one-third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool programs in Colorado.

In Arizona, the numbers are worse: 81 percent of kids aren’t enrolled in a publicly funded program.

Arizona applied last fall for a multi-year $30 million federal preschool development grant. The goal would be to make preschool programs available and accessible in 15 high-need communities, with up to an additional 3,478 slots for preschoolers in a few years.

The Obama administration has asked for an increase of $500 million for preschool grants for the next fiscal year.

Federal education officials say children at risk for academic failure, on average, start kindergarten a year behind their peers when it comes to pre-literacy and language skills. Without access to preschool, they say minority students and children from low-income families are less likely to be prepared for kindergarten.

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AP Writer Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.

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