When it Comes to Pre-K, New Mexico Has What it Takes

The New Mexico PreK initiative expanded quickly when it began in 2005.  Five years later it was serving upwards of 5,000 children. Unlike other state programs with speedy ramp-up times, this one has undergone rigorous examination throughout its early growth period and stood up well. A multi-year evaluation study, funded by the State of New Mexico, began the same year as the PreK program itself.

This month, my research colleagues and I issued the latest in our series of reports focusing on the impacts of New Mexico PreK on children’s vocabulary, math, and literacy skills at the beginning of kindergarten. Our data (for the 2008-2009 school year) were gathered from a sample of 1,359 children from Public Education Department (PED) and Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) PreK sites statewide.  Kids attending the program scored significantly higher on assessments of vocabulary, early math, and literacy in comparison to children who did not attend.

These results show that children gained important skills in areas such as addition and subtraction, telling time, knowledge of letters, and familiarity with words and book concepts. The vocabulary test is predictive of reading success and general cognitive abilities. Our conclusion: Kids who attend New Mexico PreK are better prepared to enter kindergarten than those who do not.

These positive findings merit particular attention in the context of New Mexico’s current budget shortfall.  First, the state has discontinued funding our PreK evaluation.  More importantly in the day-to-day lives of New Mexicans, the state PreK appropriation has decreased for the current school year.  This represents the first decline in state funding since New Mexico PreK began five years ago.  And, as a result, PreK enrollment declined this fall by more than 10 percent.

Over the past five years, program administrators at PED and CYFD showed they know how to launch a good program and expand it with high quality standards.  And a greater percentage of 4-year-olds in New Mexico were enrolled in state prekindergarten than in any other Western state except Colorado.  But continued expansion of this effective program may be threatened.  Even at its highest point of enrollment last school year, fewer than one in five children were enrolled. In her campaign, Governor-elect Susana Martinez said she will protect public education. Let’s hope that extends to maintaining and expanding the investment in New Mexico’s well-documented PreK winner.

Jason Hustedt

NIEER Senior Research Fellow

Assistant Professor

Department of Human Development and Family Studies

University of Delaware