Melissa Martinez began her career as an early childhood educator in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but the pay was too low for her to be able to pay her family’s bills. The Chimayó native now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and in addition to her current job in the nutrition field, she’s been knocking on a lot of doors to inform voters about the early childhood education amendment that will be on November’s ballot.
Martinez volunteers with the grassroots organization OLÉ, which champions campaigns around workers rights, immigration, democracy reform, and education. Volunteers with OLÉ have been knocking on 40,000 doors a week alongside other grassroots organizations, to garner support for the constitutional amendment that will provide more resources for early childhood education. She says getting involved with OLÉ was a no-brainer; not only do they provide free childcare at their events and for their volunteers, but as a single parent to two young children, Martinez knows the struggle of finding quality, affordable childcare intimately.
“Children need the opportunity of quality care with early intervention and meals,” says Martinez. “The community needs to rise back to the occasion of having full employment, and we need to understand that these workers also have families and needs. They need aftercare, or weekends with secure care.”
The amendment proposes a 1.1% increase in allocations to education from the New Mexico Land Grant Permanent School Fund, most of which would go to pay for early childhood education and care programs. Currently, 4.7% of revenue is pulled from the fund each year for public schools across the state. The proposed increase will make New Mexico the only state in the country to embed early years funding to its state constitution, and would commit more than $150 million toward that end. OLÉ and their coalition partners have been working hard to pass this amendment for a decade.
In economically poor states like New Mexico, the lack of federal funding for education and childcare has had severe consequences. Republican Governor Susana Martinez’s cuts during her time in office from 2011 to 2018, followed by the pandemic, hurt the state even further. New Mexico now ranks 50th overall in the 2022 Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count data profile, which takes into account indicators of child well-being, including poverty and education levels.
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade threatening women’s and people who can get pregnant right to choose puts these statistics in an even harsher light.
“I feel with the recent changes regarding women’s rights to abortion and the recent changes to reproductive health, women need support,” says Martinez. “Low-cost or no-cost childcare is a must. Money should never be a determination of help for a child.”
New Mexico’s current governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, ran on a platform focused on child care, early learning and public education. Throughout the pandemic, she has made good on her word, including boosting pay for early education teachers to a $15 minimum wage, up from an average of $9.50 an hour, ensuring free college for most in-state undergraduates attending public and tribal schools, and providing free childcare for people earning up to 400% of the federal poverty level.The Governor saw childcare workers as essential to helping New Mexicans make it through the pandemic and led the charge to help fix the massively underfunded childcare system.
Much of the money flooding into the early childhood education system in the state was made possible through State and Local Recovery Funds in Biden and the Democrats’ American Rescue Plan – but those funds will eventually dry up. And as is the case for all constitutional amendments, the next step to ensuring the funding becomes permanent by law is presenting voters with a ballot initiative.
An Albuquerque Journal poll conducted in September showed that the constitutional amendment has bipartisan support among 69% of likely voters. Melissa Martinez says the most common misconception she comes across when she knocks on doors is that the increased funding for early childhood education will cause inflation or raise taxes. New Mexico has one of the largest Land Grant Permanent Funds in the country, so she says explaining that this won’t cost taxpayers more is key.
Like every state across the country, the pandemic highlighted the disparities in access to quality early childhood education. In such a geographically large and diverse state, childcare deserts are more common than not in New Mexico. Over the course of the pandemic, New Mexico has lost 1,000 educators. Early childhood educators are one of the lowest paid professions in the state, which makes retention and quality care difficult. Additional funds could be used to provide needed funding to pay early childhood educators professional wages, increase the numbers of early childhood educators, and increase the access to high quality childcare that is offered around the state.
As Matthew Henderson, executive director of OLÉ points out, it’s not only families with young children and providers who stand to benefit from this amendment.
“Businesses who are concerned about the quality of education that potential workers are getting are supporting this because they understand how successful preschool education really sets the foundation for a successful K through 12 education,” Henderson says. “I think everyone recognizes the value of having children who are in a safe place during the day and are getting the food and social and emotional development that they need to really be successful students and good neighbors.”
Martinez says her ultimate goal is to push for universal childcare. This goal is shared by Governor Lujan Grisham, who is running for re-election this year. Martinez also wants to see 24-hour child care established around the state to accommodate workers with evening and night shifts, single parents, and others who may need support outside of traditional work hours.
“If the amendment passes, I would like to return to my beautiful community of Chimayó and Northern New Mexico with stronger opportunities,” Martinez says.