New Mexico voters to decide on funds for early childhood programs, public schools

Oct. 25—A yearslong effort to sharply increase state investments in early childhood education will culminate Nov. 8 with New Mexico voters' decision on a ballot measure.

Voters will be asked to consider approval of an increase in annual withdrawals from the state's multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund that is expected to send a couple of hundred million dollars more to both preschool programs and K-12 public schools.

New Mexico lawmakers approved a resolution in 2021 to place Constitutional Amendment 1 on the ballot following years of failed legislation.

Advocates pushing for the measures cited studies showing the benefits of early childhood programs, including higher academic achievement and graduation rates. But the move faced pushback from Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Legislature who feared it would weaken the land grand endowment, funded by oil and gas fees and investment revenues, which already sends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to public schools and other beneficiaries.

Lawmakers have discussed the possibility of tapping into the investment fund, now valued at more than $26 billion, since at least 2010, when it contained about $10 billion.

Constitutional Amendment 1 would increase yearly distributions by 1.25 percent of the fund's five-year average. Officials' most recent estimates show annual distributions would rise by about $150 million for early childhood education and $100 million for public schools.

Congress also must approve the additional withdrawals. The state's congressional delegates have introduced federal legislation to achieve this.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her Republican opponent, Mark Ronchetti, took opposing sides on the statewide ballot measure during their first gubernatorial debate.

"I campaigned on getting that proposal through the Legislature and before the voters," Lujan Grisham said. "Making sure that we take a small pinch out of the Land Grant Permanent Fund, our endowment fund for education, is critical."

Ronchetti argued the endowment is a "backstop" for when oil and gas are not major factors in New Mexico's economy and that the proposed amendment would draw it down too quickly.

"You look at where funding is, especially where funding is for early childhood [education], we have enough funds for it right now," he said.

While he said in the debate he would not support the amendment, Ronchetti asked voters who they would trust to spend the money if the amendment is passed.

His campaign did not respond to questions asking for additional comment on his position.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez said the amendment would help the local district and the state become more competitive when it comes to hiring qualified educators.

The additional funds also could help Santa Fe's prekindergarten programs grow, he said.

"I think it would go a long way," Chavez said. "At those younger ages, if [kids] receive high-quality education for longer periods of time, they are more successful in school as they start to grow through the grade levels, and the possibilities of them graduating with a high school diploma increase."

He added, "Providing these high-quality programs and being able to fully fund it is key, and it's a game changer."

Allen Sánchez, president of the Catholic nonprofit CHI St. Joseph's Children, has been fighting for additional early childhood education funding for years. He said the passage of Constitutional Amendment 1 could help realize goals he and others have been striving toward for nearly a decade.

His organization began pursuing a constitutional amendment to draw additional funds from the endowment in the early years of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's time in office.

"One of the things that made it attractive was that it did not go to the governor's desk ... and therefore the Legislature could put this on the ballot without Susana Martinez during those eight years that she opposed it," Sánchez said.

He noted the potential benefits if voters approve the measure.

"Children are going to be safer. They're not going to be left with the wrong caregiver. They're going to have high-quality child care. We're going to see a decrease of abuse in children, and we're going to detect the need for counseling intervention earlier ... [and] we're going to have higher graduation rates," Sánchez said. "That's all the hope when this takes place."