SANTA FE — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan rode a brightly painted bus into New Mexico on Monday, then gave a gloomy overview of state schools.
New Mexico begins each school year with about 30,000 students in ninth grade. But only about 20,000 of them graduate from high school in four years, Duncan said during a town hall meeting.
He said the problems of failing students and dropouts begin long before high school. That is why the Obama administration wants to spend more than $75 billion to expand prekindergarten education, Duncan told a room jammed with more than 150 supporters of the idea.
Under President Obama's plan, much of the money to expand early childhood education would come from a federal tax increase of 94 cents a pack on cigarettes. States that wanted to tap into the national account would voluntarily join the program and then contribute a portion of the cost for expanding early childhood education.
In New Mexico, about 17,000 kids are without access to pre-kindergarten programs. Including them would be the key building block for success in school at every level, Duncan said.
"This is the best investment we could make in our babies," he said.
Duncan called this "an uphill battle so far," but said it should have bipartisan support.
He said the initiative would double the number of kids in pre-kindergarten programs nationally, from 1.1 million to 2.2 million.
The pre-kindergarten education proposal is the main reason that Duncan and his staff are on their back-to-school bus tour of New Mexico, El Paso, Arizona and Southern California. Their campaign for more early childhood education funding is called Strong Start, Bright Future.
Rick Geraci, New Mexico Military Institute commandant of cadets, joined Duncan in publicly backing the initiative.
Geraci said improving early childhood education would improve national security. As it stands, he said, many young people who want to join a branch of the military are denied because they are poorly educated.
He said extra emphasis on early childhood education would keep more kids out of jail and enable them to serve their country in the military.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898.