State says child care assistance is not impacting education outcomes for NM kids

A new report evaluating New Mexico’s child care assistance program has found the state’s heavy investments in efforts to ensure quality care has had “minimal impacts on outcomes” for the nearly 66,000 kids enrolled each week.

Researchers for the Legislative Finance Committee on Tuesday presented their recommendations for improvements to state lawmakers and Elizabeth Groginsky, the secretary-designate of the newly established Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

The agency, launched through legislation approved earlier this year, will take over the child care assistance program in the fiscal year 2021 from the Children, Youth and Families Department, which has overseen it for years.

According to the new report, the child care industry employs more than 10,000 people in the state and generates $244 million a year in revenue. State and federal spending on assistance for families have doubled since the fiscal year 2014, the report says, rising to $149 million this year from $72 million in 2014.

Key findings from the report:

u Although New Mexico has one of the highest reimbursement rates for private child care providers who enroll children in the assistance program, wages for workers are lower than the national average.

u Child care did not lead to measurable improvements in educational outcomes but did increase family income and dental visits.

u The current rating system for private child care providers does not track teacher-child interactions, a measure other states use to determine a program’s quality.

u Overlap and competition between child care programs have led to the loss of federal funding.

The 44-page report ended in a list of recommendations, such as including minimum teacher salaries in the quality rating system for child care providers; tracking the child care workforce by creating a registry; monitoring teacher retention and turnover, and partnering with colleges and universities to build the workforce.

In fiscal year 2019, a little over half of the $139 million the state spent on child care assistance went to reimbursements distributed according to a quality rating system that measures a provider’s curriculum, family engagement, language support, focus on social skills and health, support for children with disabilities, and other factors.

The system ranks providers from two to five stars; the more stars, the more money a provider receives in reimbursements. A five-star provider can earn up to 338 percent more than one rated at the lowest level.

According to the Legislative Finance Committee report, 70 percent of children in the state are enrolled in programs rated with three to five stars.

But Ryan Tolman, a program evaluator, said those distinctions have no effect on whether a child enrolled in a program is ready to start school or how the child will fare in kindergarten and third grade.

“In other words, the parents who send their little Johnny and little Jenny to child care with their grandmother who runs a registered home, they’re likely to have the same outcomes as children who are sent to a top-rated, five-star child care center,” Tolman said.

In comparison, the report said, such quality standards for prekindergarten programs do affect educational outcomes.

Another concern, according to the report, is that the Children, Youth and Families Department has not tracked providers’ serious compliance issues — which could be anything from having too many children enrolled to failing to complete background checks, leaving a child unattended in a center or vehicle, or having illicit drugs in a center.

In the fiscal year 2018, the report said, five-star providers had a higher rate of sanctions for serious compliance issues than two-star providers.

Researchers for the Legislative Finance Committee also said they were concerned about a lack of data from a system that is intended to integrate information between the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Department of Health and the Public Education Department so officials can track the effectiveness of early childhood programs.

The system, from vendor eScholar, was funded with $8.5 million from a federal Race to the Top grant and was completed in 2017, according to eScholar.

But Alejandra Rebolledo Rea, acting director of early childhood services for the Children, Youth and Families Department, said a data verification process required to launch the system is slow going.

“We have to check data going back five years from three different agencies across five different systems,” she said. “So verification is going slower than we expected.”