New Mexico ranks 50th nationwide for child welfare.
But that reality could change in the coming years, as the state will soon begin pumping more than $150 million into early childhood education each year.
The money is on its way after New Mexico voters this month approved a voting measure called Constitutional Amendment One, which directs funding across the state to the youngest learners and the people who care for them.
The money comes from a unique trust funded by gas and oil revenues that was established more than 100 years ago as part of New Mexico’s statehood.
New Mexico has taken steps to help families during the pandemic, such as offering free daycare. But that was only temporary. And for years to come, this new flow of funding will be guaranteed.
Andrea Serrano, CEO of OLÉ, a non-profit organization for working families, has been campaigning for this type of support for years.
“This means so much change for New Mexico,” she says. “This means a pathway for our children to quality early childhood education and home visit day care. That means higher wages for early educators.”
Higher wages have been a major sticking point in recruiting and retaining people in early childhood occupations.
Ivydel Natachu, who teaches three-year-olds at Childco Day School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hopes the new funding will benefit generations.
Before the pandemic, she was making $10 an hour. Supporting Pandemic Relief, she now makes $17 an hour, or about $34,000 a year.
But she fights for better pay and benefits.
“Teaching is a stressful job, especially at this age when they are at their most critical stage in their development…everything is brand new to them. That’s where it gets frustrating,” she says. “But we also do a lot of paperwork to help the child grow, like referrals and lesson plans. I mean only as a public teacher [has] We have duties too. So I feel like despite all that – and we have all kinds of educational levels – we deserve higher wages.”
Natachu says the low wages have prevented her and her colleagues from working in early childhood education.
She, like many young educators across the country, has lived on the brink of poverty and has at times relied on public aid programs to make ends meet. Even a small pay raise was enough to disqualify her for support.
Natachu says she relied on food stamps and worked two jobs until she and her son, Kacy Panteah, moved in together.
Panteah followed in his mother’s footsteps and now teaches 4 and 5 year olds at the same school. He is married and has two small children. After seeing his mother struggle financially, Panteah said he knows what he’s getting into when he takes the job.
“I think you really have to put your heart into it, because if you don’t have that, you don’t want to stay there for low wages,” says Panteah.
Panteah says he also has to fight the stigma of being “just a babysitter.”
But ultimately, he says the joys he and his mother experienced teaching young children outweighed the difficulties.
“Growing up, I didn’t have many male positive role models. So I used to look at her like, ‘Oh, wow.’ So there was once an opening [at] her work, I was quick to get into it. And it’s been 15 years since I never walked away,” says Panteah.
Panteah has considered leaving the field for better wages, but he’s persevering. This new funding in New Mexico gives him hope to improve the welfare of the children he teaches there.
“Any benefits they will receive, such as outside organizations that can help with children with disabilities early on, with delays in learning, they [could] Get help with all of this,” he says. “That’s why I know kids will benefit a lot from what’s happening now.”
Natachu hopes more money will go to people like her who are early childhood educators.
“We want that money to be held accountable, and we definitely want it to go to teachers and develop programs to help children do that [become] successful in their learning and growing up,” she says.
“We are on the front line with them every day,” he says. “Sometimes, I know it’s hard to believe, but most of the time we’re there [with kids] more than the parents. You are with them [on] Weekends, after school … where we are with them all day.”
For the future, details on Constitutional Amendment 1 still need to be worked out. And the funds will probably not be distributed until next year.
But Serrano, the boss of OLÉ, is hopeful about the changes ahead after a historic election.
“We’re thrilled. This is a new day for New Mexico,” she says. “We’re the first state to enshrine early childhood education in our state constitution.”
Ashley Locke produced and edited this broadcast interview with Gabe Bullard. Locke adapted it for the web.