As the national debate surrounding providing a federal, subsidized child care program for working parents looms on, one state is poised to take matters into its own hands. In November, New Mexico voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot measure that would enshrine the right to early childhood education for children throughout the state — a measure that has support from both sides of the aisle and could transform child care access statewide.
How would it do that? The measure would provide funds for early childhood education drawn from the state’s sovereign wealth fund, a cache of cash established when New Mexico joined the United States in 1912, now valued at $26 billion.
Currently, the state allots 5% of the fund annually to education. But the new law, if passed, would increase spending by 1.25%, with $150 million alone earmarked for early childhood education in the form of universal child care and preschool, as well as the development of a robust home-visit program for pregnant people and new families. An additional $100 million would support primary, elementary, middle, and high schools.
This matters especially at a time when the child care system in the U.S. is in crisis. Even before the pandemic, families scrambled to find, afford, and access quality care for their children, and research shows that women are leaving the workforce in droves to stay home and care for children as other child care options are out of reach, either financially or geographically. Child care prices have increased by almost 50% since the beginning of the pandemic, rapidly outpacing the rate of inflation, while the number of facilities providing care has dropped dramatically.
Nine thousand child care centers and 6,957 home daycares closed permanently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving families across the country in the lurch as offices reopen and people begin working outside the home again.
The Biden Administration attempted to implement a universal child care and pre-k program in the United States; during his campaign, the President promised to "ensure access to high-quality, affordable child care and offer universal preschool to three-and four-year-olds through greater investment, expanded tax credits, and sliding-scale subsidies.” But little has come of this promise, owing to deep divisions down party lines. The Democratic budget proposal for 2023 contained numerous line items and budgetary allotments for child care, but those provisions were removed from the proposal by Republicans, leaving the U.S. lagging behind the rest of the developed world regarding child care.
If residents vote to enshrine child care, New Mexico will be the first state to guarantee a constitutional right to child care. The passage of the measure seems to be a sure thing, enjoying broad bipartisan support — 69% of the state's voters approve of the measure, including 56% of Republicans, 70% of Independents, and 79% of Democrats.
Activists and advocates hope this vote will be the first in a domino effect across the country.
“We are absolutely part of a larger network of states, and not every state has a [Land Grant] Permanent Fund, but every state has a legislature and organizing,” Andrea Serrano, the executive director of Olé, a New Mexico-based advocacy group, told Vox. “We know they’re watching us to see what happens.”
Child care advocates are quick to point out, however, that the onus should not fall entirely to the states. “Our view is that state efforts on child care are positive for multiple reasons,” Averi Pakulis, First Focus on Children’s VP for early childhood policy, explained to Vox. “However, we believe there is also an imperative for significant federal investments in our child care system, in part because it is unacceptable for only some children and families, depending on which state they live in, to have high-quality, affordable, and accessible child care.”