Sarah Nelson, a lead teacher at the Early Learning Center at Kaune, has spent 15 years as an early childhood educator. Throughout that time, she’s experienced the good and the bad sides of the child care industry.
No one needs to tell her how demanding the gig is.
“It’s a hard job and there’s a lot to it,” Nelson tells SFR. “You don’t just have to support the kids in the classroom, you have to support the families where they’re at because if the family doesn’t have the right kind of support, then the child isn’t going to benefit.”
She says her current employer, Growing Up New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based early education nonprofit that works across the state, understands the significance of her efforts.
The work is historically undervalued, though Nelson says the public is finally starting to wake up.
“Parents are starting to see the benefits of it because...their kids go home and they start talking about things they’ve learned,” she continues. “And they’re able to communicate their needs and their wants better at home.”
Despite New Mexico’s languishing national ranking in child well-being, positive developments in early childhood work, which extends from infants to 5-year-olds, have some advocates feeling optimistic. In addition to the prospect of funds from the $3.5 trillion federal budget reconciliation framework, encouraging changes at the state level hold promise for families seeking care and centers providing services.
But not everyone in early education has seen gains.
Child care workers continue to suffer from depressed wages that reflect an outdated mindset of early childhood education.
Ivydel Natachu, an early childhood educator with 16 years of experience, tells SFR that working during the pandemic created additional burdens.
“We risked our lives, our family’s lives,” Natachu says both of the increased exposure of working in person and the additional responsibilities to keep students and staff safe.
Despite the inherent necessity of child care—without it, parents can’t get back to work—employees in the field have yet to see increases in wages that reflect the indispensability of their work. In some cases, early childhood educators have taken drastic measures to receive the pay they’re due.
“I had to threaten that I’m leaving in order to get at least a 25 cent raise,” Natachu tells SFR, adding that she considers herself lucky compared to some other early childhood educators who work for directors who don’t respond to those kinds of appeals.
“It’s really sad to hear from teachers around New Mexico, not even making $10.50,” she continues. Though workers in Santa Fe benefit from at least $12.32 per hour given the city’s living wage rule, educators around the state don’t enjoy the same support.
Even though a portion of early childhood educators’ wages come from the government, these professionals can’t organize and lobby for better pay to the same extent as K-12 teachers.
The Legislative Finance Committee’s August accountability report on the status of early childhood education outlines that pay has not only failed to improve—it has regressed on average: From 2017 to 2019, wages for child care workers decreased 1%, from $10.10 to $10.00, while wages for child care center directors increased 19%.
On a larger scale, the accountability report touts investment gains in early education in New Mexico over the last decade—annual appropriations for child care programming have grown by almost 200% since fiscal year 2012.
The most recent investments for early childhood education programming—$380 million from the Legislature and $435 million from federal stimulus funds—are slated for increases in child care subsidies and supporting early education centers.
“It is foundational for economic development to have a childcare system,” says Kate Noble, vice president for policy and stakeholder engagement at Growing Up New Mexico.
“We can’t just fund the babysitting system,” says Noble, who is also a Santa Fe Public Schools Board member. “We have to look at child development and what...qualifications and expertise are needed to build that system.”
Noble says increasing child care worker pay is paramount because early childhood providers are “the workforce behind the workforce.”
Yet, Noble remains hopeful about what lies ahead for early childhood education in the state, citing bipartisan support at the state level to invest in child care. She and other advocates say the establishment of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department in 2020 signaled New Mexico’s progressive stance. In July, the department increased provider rates based on a more realistic cost model, as opposed to the market-rate model that’s historically been used around the nation.
Washington DC was the first to change over to a cost-estimation model from market rates in 2015, under the leadership of Elizabeth Groginsky, who is now the secretary of the new department.
The benefits of changing the reimbursement model extend to early education providers all over the state, Groginsky tells SFR.
“There is no difference in geography, so the cost of providing care across the state of New Mexico is the same,” she says of the new model for providers.
Previously, many centers had to eat the high cost of child care, Groginsky explains, because the money coming in wasn’t sufficient to support quality early education.
“We know that across New Mexico, some communities don’t have as many resources and so child care providers have been charging families a lot less because that’s what they can afford, but that doesn’t necessarily cover their expenses.”
The challenges faced by some providers in Santa Fe are magnified in rural areas of the state where families have fewer options and providers often need to siphon funds from improving programming to stay afloat.
In addition to increasing provider rates, the department also expanded eligibility for the Child Care Assistance Program, which subsidizes child care costs for qualifying families to 350% of the federal poverty level, which works out to $92,750 or below for a family of four.
Groginsky explains that both the rates the state pays providers and family eligibility drive the cost of child care. She says that the recent changes to both aspects speak to a brighter future in the state.
“I knew it was going to be important, especially for New Mexico, because there’s been such a focus in this state, first of all just creating the new department,” Groginsky says. “There was a shift happening, there was going to be a new way of looking at early childhood.”