Spend wisely to boost child well-being, finance official says

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John R. Roby / Searchlight New Mexico

Searchlight New Mexico Executive Editor Sara Solovitch interviews Charles Sallee, deputy director for program evaluation of the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, during a forum on early childhood education held Sept. 6, 2018 at United Church in Los Alamos.

New Mexico has a waiting problem, according to a senior official with the agency that advises the state on how its money is managed.

"Often the programs and systems we've established wait to deal with problems until they're very expensive and challenging to solve," said Charles Sallee, deputy director for program evaluation on New Mexico's Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), during a forum on early childhood education held Sept. 6 at United Church in Los Alamos.

Sallee returned to that point over and over during the forum, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Los Alamos, the American Association of University Women and Searchlight New Mexico. As featured speaker, Sallee was interviewed by Searchlight Executive Editor Sara Solovitch before an audience of over 50 people about the need for better implementation and oversight of the state's early childhood programs.

Using child protective services as an example, Sallee described a system that lays elaborate requirements on a mother to win back custody without offering her assistance, and then results in one of the nation's highest rates of repeat neglect. There are programs in place elsewhere in the nation proven to break that cycle, he said, but they're not operating here.

"We've poured money into [child protective services] and we're not getting results," he said. "From a taxpayer standpoint. you should be asking, 'Why are we not investing in things that are cost-beneficial and [lead to] better outcomes for kids and families?'"

New Mexico has built a network of programs aimed at improving health and educational outcomes for the state's children, Sallee said, including childcare assistance, home visiting, pre-K and K-3 Plus. The network has grown since 2012, even during budget crunches that saw other agencies lose funding. That means the LFC can advise lawmakers on which programs to boost depending on the goal they want to accomplish.

"When people say they want to change educational outcomes, I tell them, 'Put your money into pre-K,' he said. "If they tell me they want to help families afford childcare, put money into childcare assistance."

Yet what's often missing, he said, is coordination. Early childhood funding is spread across four state departments, and often represents a fraction of an agency's budget. Pre-K, for example, is funded through both the Public Education Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department. Perhaps, he said, it's time to consider creating a new home for early childhood programs or reviving the Children's Cabinet created during the Richardson administration.

"I think a Children's Cabinet could be helpful, possibly, along with a new agency," he said.

New Mexico has for years ranked among the worst in the nation on most measures of child well-being. Yet with just under 2.1 million people, small on-the-ground improvements can make a big difference.

The challenge, Sallee said, often lies in convincing people that a new approach -- one backed by evidence -- deserves a try in New Mexico.

People, he said, often think "what works elsewhere won't work here. But what we've been doing here hasn't worked, so maybe we should give [something else] a shot. That's been a real barrier to getting folks to adopt evidence-based models, this notion that we're so different that this can't possibly work here."

Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization, is engaged in a yearlong reporting project on the challenges and the opportunities that children in the state face.

"This was a wonderful opportunity to learn about the real issues facing New Mexico's children and how the state’s bureaucracy helps and hinders that work," Solovitch said. "We were glad to be a part of it."

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