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Education Lawsuit Points To Disparities In State’s Pre-K

Pixabay via Creative Commons

Lawmakers and educators in New Mexico have been talking about the achievement gap in public schools for years—and trying to figure out how to close it. Testimony in a landmark education trial underway in Santa Fe touched on early childhood education programs this week. The lawsuit says they’re crucial to making sure students of color, children from families with low incomes and English language-learners succeed. But those programs aren’t widely available. 

When kids get a high-quality education before they even get to kindergarten, they have better reading and math skills, they are more successful in school overall, and more likely to graduate and go to college, according to the state’s Public Education Department.

Arlyne Portillo began looking for some kind of early school for her son because he started reading very young. “Looking for a pre-K was hard for me here in New Mexico,” Portillo said. “You know you have to really look into it. Most of the places charge you for it.”

She persisted, and managed to get him a spot a La Promesa, which is an early learning charter school and has a lottery process for admission.

Arlyne Portillo (left) and Mayra Acevedo

“He loves school. Being in pre-K helped him be more social,” Portillo said. “It’s just a big impact on him, and I saw it in a positive way. It’s one of the best decisions that I’ve done, as a mother, as a parent.”

Parents in New Mexico looking to give their child that boost have likely got only a couple of options: Get one of the limited free slots in a public pre-K program or charter school, or enroll them in a private program and pay hundreds of dollars each month out of pocket. Some tuition even rivals in-state college tuition.

“A parent might think twice of taking their children and either pay those bills or take my child to early education,” Portillo said.

Through La Promesa, Portillo got hooked up with Abriendo Puertas, which helps parents become better advocates for their kids as they make their way through the public education system. Now, she’s a facilitator there.

“Every child should have the opportunity of being in early education,” Portillo said. “Every child. Every family.”

School districts have to apply to the state for grants to create public, free pre-K programs. According to the lawsuit filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, more than two-thirds of the districts don’t have free pre-K seats. And the ones that do, don’t have anywhere near enough.

“It’s very inequitable because oftentimes, the children who need it in rural communities, families who can’t afford it, who need it the most, are not getting access to those programs,” Bunker said.

Jessa Bunker is the public policy advocate with Catholic Health Initiatives St. Joseph’s Children.

“We have huge disparities between the white students compared to students of color and their access to these programs,” Bunker said.

She says high-quality early childhood education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty here. New Mexico has been working to expand early childhood education, and according to PED spokesperson Lida Alikhani, enrollment’s nearly doubled.

According to last year’s numbers from the state, only about 29 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in public pre-K.

Mayra Acevedo works with Partnership for Community Action, a nonprofit in the South Valley of Albuquerque.

“Everybody wants their child to be successful,” Acevedo said. “Nobody wants their child to not finish high school.”

Even though times are tight, the state can find the money to make early childhood education equitable in New Mexico, Acevedo says, by tapping the fund that oil and gas companies pay into.

“Our state is one in the nation with a fund that can save our children,” Acevedo said. “But we refuse.”

The House voted earlier this year to spend one percent more of that fund to expand early childhood ed, but a Senate committee killed the measure.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are hoping to change the way education is funded and delivered in the state. The trial is slated to last two more months.


This map shows the capacity of licensed and registered child care facilities as compared to population of children under 6 in New Mexico. Licensed child care centers are shown on the map and include their star rating from the state. Registered homes are not shown on the map, however their capacity is included in the data.

This data does not include Headstart programs.

Clicking on a point or area will bring up more information. Notably, some parts of Albuquerque show over 100% capacity. This is because parents from other areas bring their children to the area.

Data for this map comes from the New Mexico Community Data Collaborative.


PED spokesperson Lida Alikhani's full statement: 

“Pre-K programs in New Mexico have grown significantly under this administration - preparing more young children than ever before - for success. These kids are a top priority to Governor Martinez, that’s why since taking office her administration is investing more dollars in the classroom than ever before, and has nearly quadrupled investment and doubled enrollment in Pre-K. We are now spending about $800 more per student than was being spent under the previous administration.  Further, we’ve expanded into additional districts and communities and even extended to full-day Pre-K in many circumstances – all of which are leading to real results for our children.”

Marisa Demarco began a career in radio at KUNM News in late 2013 and covered public health for much of her time at the station. During the pandemic, she is also the executive producer for Your NM Government and No More Normal, shows focused on the varied impacts of COVID-19 and community response, as well as racial and social justice. She joined Source New Mexico as editor-in-chief in 2021.
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