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Legislature Looks for Solutions to Improve NM Children’s Reading Skills

January 25, 2012

SANTA FE, N.M. - The recently released 2011 Kids Count Data Book shows disappointing numbers concerning children's well-being.

Rates of children living in poverty have increased from 25 percent to 29 percent in three years, says Christine Hollis, New Mexico Kids Count director. How this affects the ability to learn is shown by the numbers, she says.

New Mexico children's third-grade reading proficiency - considered a yardstick for how well children will fare throughout school - is an ominous indicator.

"New Mexico has, unfortunately, dropped from being 49th in the nation to 50th."

New Mexico's high school graduation rate stands at 67 percent, also one of the lowest levels in the nation.

A campaign called "Invest In Kids Now" is advocating for an amendment to the state Constitution to temporarily increase the distribution from the land-grant permanent funds for early childhood education programs.

Gov. Susana Martinez has a different idea. She wants to add $17 million a year in funds for childhood reading programs and hold back third-graders unable to read at the third-grade level.

Bill Jordan, policy director for New Mexico Voices for Children, says we're waiting too long to invest in our children.

"We know that 85 percent of brain development occurs in the first three years of life. We're spending almost 60 percent of our state budget in the later years. We want to invest a little more in those years when brain development is critical."

Some of the legislative responses to Martinez's plan are harsh. Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque, dubbed the proposal "third-grade flunking bill." But the idea of an amendment to the state Constitution is also controversial. It would have to jump at least two potential hurdles, passing through the Legislature and getting voter approval in order to become law.

Jordan thinks moving through the process of introducing and voting on an amendment on this issue will result in a win for children and adults.

"If we get to take this proposal to the voters, it will be as if we're running a campaign to get parents more involved with their really young children."

If the resolution for a constitutional amendment makes it through the Legislature, it will appear on the ballot for the 2012 general election.

Beth Blakeman, Public News Service - NM