Santa Fe New Mexican: Commentary: It’s time for a lasting impact on state’s economy

By:  U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich

Over the summer, I traveled to communities across New Mexico to discuss issues that impact people every day. During my conversations, what I heard again and again — from veterans, working moms, students, business owners, community leaders and others — is that the most important issues are jobs and the economy.

That’s certainly my priority in the U.S. Senate.

While we’ve seen signs of recovery nationally, the economic picture in New Mexico remains incredibly challenging. All signs are that federal spending will remain tightly constrained in the coming years, so solutions to what ails our economy will have to be generated here at home. We must work together to develop a cohesive and collaborative vision focused on innovation and smart economic growth.

The key to making New Mexico a great place to raise a family, start or expand a business, find a good-paying job, and hire the best and brightest employees, is to improve and invest in our education system. But improving education in our state is going to take a lot more than one bill or initiative, and it is not going to happen overnight.

I believe it’s time to invest a percentage of New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund in early childhood education. A report from the State Investment Council shows that New Mexico’s Permanent Fund, which we spend a small portion of every year on education and other important services, is growing at a robust pace. As of July, the fund was valued at $14.16 billion, making it the second largest of its kind in the nation.

The proposal to invest a portion of the fund each year in early childhood education does not come without controversy, and I recognize that many view this fund as our rainy-day fund. But I have news: It is raining.

If you look at the data in New Mexico, it’s clear we are not doing enough for our students. More than 25 percent of our students aren’t finishing high school on time and more than 75 percent of fourth-graders are not proficient in math. These statistics are unacceptable.

It’s time to think outside of the box about how we lay the groundwork for our state for decades to come.

There’s no denying that expanding access to high-quality early childhood education would generate a meaningful return on investment for our state. Numerous credible studies have shown that each dollar invested in early childhood services has a significant rate of return through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these children as adults.

And when people are earning more, they spend more as customers. When businesses have more customers, they hire more workers.

Ensuring our students receive a world-class, affordable education at every age and no matter where they come from isn’t just about improving the well-being of our children. It’s also the surest way to rescue our economy.

If we want businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs to invest in New Mexico, then we must make every effort to invest in our workforce and our children’s education, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

A study by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program found that nationally, job postings for STEM remain unfilled for more than twice as long as all other types of jobs. The postings stay open longer because we are not graduating or training enough students with the STEM backgrounds to fill these jobs. We need to change that, which is why I’m co-sponsoring two proposals to help encourage students to enter STEM fields.

The first, Supporting Afterschool STEM Act, would invest additional resources to support after-school STEM programing. The second, STEM 2 Act, aims to establish STEM networks and invests in professional development for STEM teachers. These two bills would help foster the next generation of entrepreneurs, scientists, doctors and engineers. The topic of STEM education is certainly one that I look forward to discussing in October when I speak at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces.

We also need to increase training and education opportunities for job seekers and those looking to hone their skills, which is why I voted to pass the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. This bipartisan bill, signed into law in July, updates and streamlines some of New Mexico’s federal workforce development programs, helping to bridge the gap between workers, technology skills and employers.

From Washington, D.C., to the Roundhouse, from the board of education to the boardrooms of corporations, from the national labs to the high school chemistry labs, a commitment to improve education and strengthen our workforce must be made at every level.

By investing in education and workforce training, and with continued partnership between colleges, universities, the national labs and business leaders, I have much much hope for the future. I am confident that together we will make a significant and lasting impact on New Mexico’s economy.