Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

1-31 Consider Alternatives For Pre-Kindergarten

SANTA FE – Most education issues aren’t particularly visible or controversial in the New Mexico Legislature, but pre-kindergarten education programs appear headed for center stage, where they may grab quite a bit of attention.
In this instance, the debate will not be nearly as much along the lines of whether we should spend public money for private schools or about the separation of church and state, although they still apply.
The main issues in this debate will be whether government can afford to or should support early-childhood programs. Gov. Richardson’s proposal is for the state to initiate public-private partnerships with businesses and churches that currently provide programs for preschool children. The problem for state government is that it is on the outside looking in. Preschool programs now are in the domain of the private sector.
To gain a foothold, the state must cozy up and say, “Let’s be partners. We’ll give you some money and then tell you how to run your business. And as soon as you are operating by state standards and we have enough taxpayer money to fund everything, we’ll take it all over.”
The state is also now imposing mandates through child care licensing, even for private programs not receiving government funding. Under these new requirements, many private businesses may not survive. Private pre-schools have not objected to safety standards prescribed by the state, but when that is extended to program standards, it may inhibit constitutional freedoms to private business and, therefore, become a liability problem.
Many parents are very happy with the care and services their preschool children are receiving from private programs. Many of these programs are full and have waiting lists. If the state heaps too many regulations on them, these may be forced to shut down, leaving the state to foot the bill for even greater numbers of children.
There is also considerable disagreement among those who have studied government funded early childhood programs as to whether they are essential to educational readiness or just an offer of free babysitting used to garner public support. Opinions range from it being an absolute essential, through it being a waste of money, down to it even being harmful to a child.
Good parenting seems to be the most important factor in child growth and development. That is done at home and that is where many parents want it to stay.
If preschool programs are voluntary, yet state-supported, families who prefer to care for their children’s preschool needs at home will be taxed for the government to provide free child care for someone else’s children. At this point, the governor’s proposal is voluntary, but already some legislators have argued for it to be mandatory, so that no child is left behind.
This thorny issue is bound to cause problems. Despite a number of states that have tried it, a good model that works for all parties has yet to be found. The public-private partnerships may be all right for some, but there must be a way for current successful programs, which are serving many children in the state, to continue to operate without requiring expensive state controls.
What is clear is that one size does not fit all in regard to education. An alternative may be to allow continued licensing for all child care programs meeting current standards, while encouraging state-funded programs to achieve higher quality standards.
This would provide programs and the public with a wider variety of choices and keep prices from skyrocketing by requiring every program to have degreed teachers. It could allow students receiving state assistance to attend any licensed center and would be accessible to all, but would not be free for those families not determined to be disadvantaged.
By supporting quality and choice in the programs already available for children, taxpayers and public education systems would not be forced to take on roles beyond their ability to pay for them.


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