Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Free child care expanded to around 20,000 more families

gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who jokingly refers to herself as the “shortest governor,” still had to squat to chat with preschoolers at an event announcing expanded free child care at the East Gate Kids Learning Center in the Northeast Heights on Thursday. (Roberto E. Rosales/)Preschoolers grasp at New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s boots during an event announcing the expansion of free child care to families with an income 400% above the federal poverty line at the East Gate Kids Learning Center in Albuquerque on Thursday. (Roberto E. Rosales/)

For Felix Otero, help accessing early child care means freed-up money for clothes and camping trips with his 6-year-old daughter.

Otero is a single father and a service manager at the Big O Tires up the street from the East Gate Kids Learning Center, where his daughter has gone for the last couple of months.

“I just need some help … for my daughter and I to be able to push further into the future,” he said.

Roughly 20,000 additional New Mexico families like Otero’s will qualify for free child care under a new initiative announced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday.

Elizabeth Groginsky, Cabinet Secretary for Early Childhood Education, said the expanded free child care will now benefit more than 30,000 families who “are breathing a sigh of relief.”

Families with incomes placing them at or below 400% of the federal poverty line — a family of four earning up to $111,000 per year, for example — will now be eligible for waived copayments on child care beginning Sunday, the governor said. The governor’s press secretary, Nora Meyers Sackett, said just over 10,000 families were eligible for the current copayment waiver as of Feb. 28.

“More families will have free access to five-star, world-class, high quality child care,” Lujan Grisham said. “That is the road to a universal child care system. … Our families deserve every bit of support, they are remarkable, and resilient. And child care should be free.”

Wide-eyed preschoolers sat restlessly at the foot of the stage the governor spoke from. Even she acknowledged they were obviously wondering what all the fuss was about.

Lujan Grisham also pledged $10 million in funding for “supply-building” grants to expand the availability of child care in communities “where it is needed most.” Her office added in a news release the funds would add capacity for up to 800 more children statewide.

Both the free child care expansion and the grants, Sackett said, will be funded for the next year with federal money the state received from the American Rescue Plan Act. Roughly $300 million was set aside in federal stimulus dollars in part to cover a previous child care expansion.

The Early Childhood Education & Care Department, according to the release, will launch the program in the coming weeks. Child care providers and employers will be able to submit proposals to compete for the grants.

The department’s scholarship program, Groginsky said in a third announcement, will also be used to fund $2,000 per-semester grants for professionals currently enrolled in early-childhood degree programs at New Mexico colleges or universities.

The department said its current scholarship program will transition into the new scholarship program. Most of the 825 professionals currently enrolled will benefit from the scholarship program, which can be used for living and transportation costs.

The copayment waiver announcement came after a July 2021 eligibility expansion, allowing families 400% above the poverty line to qualify for the state’s child care assistance program. Previously, only families 200% above the poverty line qualified for waived copayments.

“I’m grateful that I’m getting help from the waivers and the (ECECD),” Otero said.

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