Governor to tap federal funds for early childhood worker pay boost



SANTA FE – Early childhood workers in New Mexico could see their pay levels increase by more than $6,000 per year, under a plan released by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that will use federal relief funds – at least for now – to pay for the salary bumps.

The plan announced Thursday is intended to raise the base wage for entry-level early childhood workers to $15 per hour – it would be around $20 per hour for more seasoned teachers – and bolster retention and recruitment efforts as the Lujan Grisham administration seeks to establish universal pre-kindergarten statewide.

“Early childhood workers have always been underpaid relative to the importance of the work they do,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “We need to attract and retain the best talent to ensure the youngest New Mexicans get the high-quality early education they deserve.”

The initial $77 million to provide the $3-per-hour pay supplements to between 13,000 and 16,000 workers at licensed early childhood centers will come from federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars, the Governor’s Office said.

Once that funding runs out, money to keep the raises in place could come from either other federal dollars, a recently-created state early childhood trust fund or increased distributions from New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund, said Early Childhood Eduction and Care Department spokesman Micah McCoy.

Statewide voters will decide in November whether to approve a constitutional amendment to earmark more money out of the permanent fund, which is currently valued at about $25 billion, for early childhood programs and K-12 schools and teacher compensation.

“We believe there are opportunities to fund these big initiatives going forward,” McCoy told the Journal.

While the state Supreme Court last year sided with legislators in a dispute with the Governor’s Office over spending authority for federal pandemic relief funds, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the planned pay supplements would not require legislative approval.

That’s because money was specifically allocated under the federal program to states for spending on child care programs and assistance for low-income families, Sackett said.

Like other states, New Mexico saw many child care centers close and workers forced to look for other jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, though the number of licensed care facilities has ticked back up in recent months to close to pre-pandemic levels, McCoy said.

There are currently 951 licensed child care centers around the state.

Under the Lujan Grisham administration’s plan, the pay increases would function like a grant program. Starting Nov. 1, child care center owners or directors would be able to apply with the state for funds to provide the raises for their employees.

Elizabeth Groginsky, the Cabinet secretary of the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said many child care providers have struggled to fully staff their classrooms amid rising inflation.

“We’re in a situation where the market can’t support the wages that attract the qualified professionals that we rely on to educate and nurture our children during their most important developmental years,” she said in explaining the pay supplements.

Several leaders of Organizers in the Land of Enchantment, or OLÉ, a nonprofit group that has financially supported the proposed constitutional amendment, lauded the governor’s announcement on Thursday, with one leader, Ivydel Natachu, saying the state has a history of paying women of color low wages to care for children.

Meanwhile, the increased pay for early childhood workers is just one part of a multi-pronged effort to expand New Mexico’s early child care system.

In May, the state launched a program offering stipends of up to $2,000 per semester for students enrolled in early childhood education programs at state colleges and universities.

And the Lujan Grisham administration last year raised New Mexico’s income eligibility threshold for child care assistance to the nation’s highest level, meaning families can qualify for free child care if they make up to 400% of the federal poverty level – or $111,000 a year for a family of four.