It's naptime at Kid’s Choice, a small preschool tucked beneath a hill off St. Michael’s Drive. The two owners, Roseann Gutierrez and Loriann Bosbonis, guide a reporter through the divided sections of the preschool’s main room, which features a simulated kitchen, an area for physical “muscle play” and a dress-up center for theater play. Near a toy castle, a toddler is fast asleep with colored whiskers dried on her face from a recent fingerpainting exercise.
Unlike a standard daycare center, Kid's Choice is one of more than 500 state-certified early childhood education centers that are required to teach a curriculum to its kids. Lessons on this particular day include Spanish word exercises, counting and music.
But many preschools like Kid's Choice are in the thick of hard times. A decline in enrollment has its operators wondering how much longer they can afford to keep it open.
"We're really low, compared to where we [usually] are at this time of year," Gutierrez says of the preschool's current financial standing. "But we're making it through, barely."
Perpetual poverty and dismal education rankings in New Mexico have prompted comprehensive early childhood education to become the campaign buzz issue for liberal politicians across the state. Yet, preschools here are steadily losing public help.
In the last four years, 172 New Mexico preschools have shut their doors, according to an early childhood education coalition called PEOPLE for the Kids. Lindsay Theo, director of Early Educators United, says her group estimates an additional 250 preschools that rely on state subsidies to pay student tuition are currently facing financial hardships.
The state has attempted to help, upping its funding of pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds by 13 percent from 2011 to 2013. But advocates say focusing on that increase ignores bigger
Amid cuts in federal funding, the state Children, Youth and Families Department in 2010 stiffened qualifications for daycare and preschool subsidies. The state formerly helped families with incomes of 200 percent of the federal poverty line, but now only gives the subsidy to those earning at or less than the poverty level. For example, while a family of four earning $44,700 used to qualify for preschool subsidies, now it couldn't make more than $22,350 to be guaranteed help. That change and other rule shifts put more than 6,000 children on a waiting list.
Some regulations were intended to stop parents from gaming the system, but critics say they have crossed the line to restrictive red tape.
Matthew Henderson, executive director of Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, blames CYFD for "aggressively putting up barriers" that have made it tough for parents to receive subsidies.
He cites Albuquerque resident Raquel Roybal as a prime example. Every six months, Roybal must go to CYFD offices to refile her application for child support. She actually doesn't receive child support—her ex-husband is currently serving two life sentences in prison for a crime committed in 2010, after they split. Roybal must repeatedly prove to the state that she's not getting support from him to requalify for preschool subsidies for her 5-year-old son.
"I know they're doing it because of fraudulent cases," Roybal tells SFR. "But it really makes it harder for people who aren't committing fraud."
CYFD spokesman Henry Varela tells SFR the state recently changed the qualifying income level again, this time upping it to 150 percent of the poverty level in September. He says the state wants to provide more early education to infants and toddlers.
Preschool financial woes go beyond the department. A drop in child enrollment forced New Mexico Highlands University's Child Development Center in Las Vegas to close down earlier this month after 30 years. Former Director Diane Luna says the center's nine-month schedule caused parents who needed year-round care to look elsewhere.
The preschool couldn't afford to operate during the entire year, Luna says, because of a steep decline in funding it was receiving from the public university where it was housed—from a high-point of $400,000 a year to $100,000 a year recently.
"For us to assume that universities should automatically provide money is kind of out there," she says. "The funding needs to come from somewhere else."
Some believe the answer lies in a raid on state reserves to pay for the programs, but the Legislature has stalled on that idea. Meanwhile, a coalition of advocates in Albuquerque says it will seek funding on a city ballot initiative.
Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales uttered the phrase "early childhood education" frequently during his campaign, but he says it's too early to talk about new taxes for that purpose. He says first, he's looking to nonprofits such as the Lannan Foundation and United Way.
But for the time being, struggling preschools are resorting to any means they can for immediate help. Three early childhood education centers in the state facing closure, including Santa Fe's Playschool of the Arts, have launched last-minute fundraisers to save their schools.
"Realistically, the amount of money they're trying to raise—it's going to be impossible," Theo says.
At Kid's Choice, Bosbonis doesn't have much faith in politicians helping her cause. She went to the Roundhouse during the state legislative session earlier this year to testify before a committee for more funding for early childhood education. During her testimony, she watched as legislators thumbed their cellphones and left the committee room to meet with people in the hallway.
"I was disgusted with what I saw," Bosbonis says. "We teach our kids to have respect to listen to people when they're talking, and our representatives don't have respect for us."