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Heck Yeah! New Mexican Voters Just Made Child Care A Constitutional Right

They became the first state in the country to do so, and it won’t just be a right in theory.

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Diverse children enjoying playing with colorful toy blocks.

Voters in New Mexico just made history! New Mexico just became the first state in the country to make child care a constitutional right, thanks to a ballot measure that was years in the making. But their new law won’t just be a right in theory, and the benefits of that guarantee could be far wider-reaching than New Mexico alone. Here’s what you need to know.

What Did New Mexico Voters Just Vote For?

As of Thursday morning, with 95% of precincts reporting, more than 70% of New Mexico voters — a bonafide bipartisan constituency — approved a measure that would add the right to child care to the state’s constitution for kids age 0 to 5.

The new policy will also provide funding for the expansion of the state’s early childhood education system, enhanced instruction for at-risk students, increased teacher compensation, and an extended school year for K-12 students.

The vote makes New Mexico the first state with a constitutional guarantee to child care.

“Even in times when we may have less funding as a state, even as some of the revenue goes away, it means New Mexico kids still have that right,” Amber Wallin, director of New Mexico Voices For Children, told Early Learning Nation.

How Will The Child Care Program Be Funded?

The money for these programs will be allocated from an existing fund — the Land Grant Permanent Fund — that was established when New Mexico gained statehood in 1912 and is now valued at more than $25 billion.

Historically, New Mexico has allotted 5% of the Land Grant Permanent Fund to public schools, hospitals, and universities. The new rule will increase that amount withdrawn for education by 1.25%. Advocates estimate that around $150 million per year will be earmarked for the establishment of a universal child care and pre-kindergarten program and another $100 million for K-12 school improvements.

“The money... won’t just be a one-time infusion, but a steady stream of about $150 million a year for early childhood programs... It could very well allow New Mexico to achieve a system of free child care and preschool for all state residents,” Early Learning Nation reports.

And, importantly for New Mexico voters, the programs will not result in tax increases since the funds are already available through the Land Grant Permanent Fund.

Bringing the vote to the residents of New Mexico was a long-term project — for advocates and lawmakers who faced pushback from a few conservative-leaning Democrats.

“There were a handful of lawmakers who were [blocking progress] in New Mexico, and once they were out of office, the early childhood measure passed and [was] placed on the ballot,” Andrea Serrano, the executive director of Olé, the advocacy group that fought to get the proposition on the ballot, explained to Vox.

What Does It Mean For The Rest Of Us?

The approval of the ballot measure comes at a crucial time.

The child care system in the United States is not robust. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, child care employees were underpaid, the cost of operating the centers were sky high, and those costs were often shunted onto parents themselves, who found quality child care hard to find and afford. Child care centers are run on razor-thin profit margins — which made the devastation of the pandemic far more severe.

Many child care centers make their money from the number of children enrolled. When attendance at these centers cratered during COVID-19, the programs, which are also funded by a patchwork of federal and state funding alongside parent tuition, shuttered: 9,000 child care centers and 6,957 home daycares closed permanently.

The sudden dearth in qualified care has left families nationwide struggling to find, and then even afford, necessary care for their children during a time of severe inflation and economic instability. Many child care workers barely earn minimum wage, despite the deeply important work that they do.

Giving more funding to these centers will help parents and the child care centers themselves. Advocates hope the funding will open the door to universal (AKA free) public preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, and help them pay their employees more, expand access, or hire more employees.

What happens next is not guaranteed. Per Vox, now that the measure has been approved, “state lawmakers would next create enabling legislation to determine how the new funds” will be spent. One major priority is to ensure that educators are at the table and to push for “salaries that begin at $18 an hour,” rather than the minimum wage they are paid currently. And wages are just one part of the picture.

And during the pandemic, the state used emergency funds from the federal government to make child care free for families — this passage could help make those changes more permanent.

“We anticipate that this will continue to move us towards that goal of universal Pre-K,” Wallin told Early Learning Nation. “Opening up Pre-K access to all of our families…we know that’s going to be one of the really important ways this money is used.”

Advocates hope the overwhelmingly positive vote in New Mexico will send a message about how much Americans value child care to federal lawmakers who have, so far, put child care on the back burner.

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