*Take Action* Universal Pre-K is the way – let’s get it done!

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Guest column

The 2018 election brought new energy, new ideas, and thankfully, new leaders to state government. Teachers across the state have a lot to be hopeful about. From Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to an exciting new class of all-star freshman House members, the election signaled that it’s time to be bold and reverse the downward trajectory our state has suffered through under the Martinez regime. A moonshot for education – that’s the promise.

There’s no better place to start than elevating universal pre-kindergarten to the top of the agenda. In every speech I’ve heard our new Governor give, she’s led with the need for universal pre-K. And for good reason – we know that pre-K works for our kids.

The State’s Legislative Finance Committee has studied pre-K extensively, as have multitudes of national researchers all establishing the same conclusion – pre-K works. But as a kindergarten teacher, I don’t need a study to tell me what I can see with my own eyes – kids who attend pre-K do better.  They do better in the classroom, are more prepared for school than kids who did not attend pre-K, they have better verbal skills, more social skills, and they are ready to learn.

The studies say pre-K improves third grade outcomes, graduation rates, and earnings later in life, and reduces rates of crime and other social ills among participants. High-quality (key word!), full-day, universal pre-K will improve educational outcomes for our children, provide thousands of new jobs for teachers, and (bonus!) serve as a major attraction to new businesses contemplating a move to the Land of Enchantment. Lawmakers across the aisle agree – there’s no downside to pre-K.  We just need more of it.  

There’s a bill moving through the legislature that would establish universal pre-K. If it passed, it would mean that all four-year-olds whose parent or guardian wanted them to attend pre-K would have a spot in a public pre-K classroom. Many public schools have been providing high-quality pre-K to four-year-olds for over a decade. This bill would allow ALL public schools to offer pre-K to four-year-olds, ensuring that every child, in every corner of the state has a spot in a high-quality pre-k. That’s a big change – right now there are waiting lists all over the state.

The mechanics of Senate Bill 298, sponsored by Senator Bill Soules from Las Cruces are this:  SB298 would move pre-K for four-year-olds into the public school funding formula, so that every family that wants high-quality pre-K for their children will get it, no matter where they live or how much money they make.  Finally. And the funding would be secured through the public school’s budget.

Importantly, SB298 would also expand pre-K for three-year-olds, through the current and expanded network of private providers – ensuring that more three-year-olds can attend early pre-K as well.

As a teacher, this is the part that means a lot to me: SB298 is also focused on the workforce. Most early childhood teachers in private pre-K centers are paid low wages and no benefits – so low they often qualify for food stamps and Medicaid. SB298 increases educator pay, and ensures teachers responsible for children at this early stage receive training and professional development. This bill will transform pre-kindergarten into a profession and give the respect these educators deserve.  Right now, pre-K teachers migrate from private centers to public schools, rightly pursuing higher wages. That pattern creates massive turnover in private centers, which is not good for teachers, center owners, nor children.

Let’s do this New Mexico – let’s put New Mexico on a path toward universal pre-K. The best way to do that so that every four-year-old has access around the state by putting four-year-olds into the school funding formula and providing pre-K in all our public schools.

We have an opportunity this year for that moonshot the Governor talks about – and it includes our youngest learners! We have to do it a new way. Let’s pass universal pre-K – SB298! It’s good for our kids, our teachers and it’s great for New Mexico.

Sonya Romero is a Kindergarten Teacher at Lew Wallace Elementary.

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