- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 16, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico’s programs for young children are generating mixed results and legislative analysts recommended Wednesday that lawmakers continue tracking the outcomes of early childhood programs to ensure the state is investing wisely.

Analysts with the Legislative Finance Committee presented the findings of their latest accountability report covering spending and outcomes for such programs during a meeting in Taos.

“This is a conversation that we continue to have here in the committee and throughout the Legislature - the idea of funding what works and looking at return on investment and what we get for our money,” said Jon Courtney, a program evaluator for the committee.

The report shows recurring funding for everything from child care assistance to home visits, early literacy programs and prekindergarten has increased over the last several years, surpassing more than $350 million during the last fiscal year that ended in June.

While funding for many services has increased even during lean budget years, the report highlights troubling indicators that show more work needs to be done to curb repeat child abuse and neglect and to boost participation in early learning programs.

There are signs that the state’s efforts to help children begin reading sooner are paying off, the report said. Its data showed children who participated in prekindergarten programs in 2010 had significantly higher rates of reading proficiency by the time they reached fifth grade compared to students who did not attend pre-K.

The number of children participating in pre-K programs is up from last year, and the figures show 70 percent of the state’s eligible 4 year olds are in daycare services.

Courtney suggested that notable improvements in closing the achievement gap came when prekindergarten was combined with a state program that extends the school year for interested students at high-poverty and low-performing elementary schools.

Analysts expressed some concerns that the program launched in 2007 is not being implemented correctly in all schools.

The report also warned that the state’s share of child care assistance for low-income families is expected to continue increasing as provider and enrollment rates climb.

Conservative estimates project an additional $20 million will be needed in the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years to maintain the caseload and avoid growing waiting lists.

The child care assistance program currently serves about 19,000 children at an annual cost of about $100 million, according to the report.

Analysts found that monthly provider rates now average about $521 per child, an increase of 55 percent in just five years. They say rates are expected to keep climbing as providers offer higher levels of quality in their programs.

Officials in Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration said Tuesday that safety, health and educational opportunities for New Mexico children are top priorities and point to increased funding since 2011 as evidence. The pre-K budget alone has more than tripled to nearly $31 million a year and nearly $18 million is being spent annually on home visits for at-risk families.

Henry Varela, a spokesman for the state’s child welfare agency, said the goal is to make these early childhood services available to as many families as possible and to continue raising public awareness about reporting suspected child abuse or neglect.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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