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Education cuts called deepest in U.S.

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A new national report shows New Mexico’s overall education cuts since 2008 are among the deepest in the nation, which one advocacy group said shows the state is moving in the “wrong direction.”

But a key lawmaker and a spokesman for the state Public Education Department questioned the findings, saying they don’t tell the whole story.

The report, released last week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, compared education spending in all 50 states and looked at how spending has changed since before the recession. The center describes itself as a nonpartisan research and policy institute. One of the report’s findings was that New Mexico’s inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending dropped by $874 between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2014. That number was higher in just four states: Alabama, Wisconsin, Kansas and Idaho.

The report highlights New Mexico as a state that increased spending between fiscal 2013 and 2014, but not enough to make up for prior cuts. “For example, New Mexico is increasing school funding by $72 per pupil this year. But that is too small to offset the state’s $946 per-pupil cut over the previous five years,” according to the report.

But Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, questioned the study’s methodolody.

The study looked at the amount of money that flowed through every state’s major education funding formula. However, much of the funding that has been added in the past few years in New Mexico has been “below the line.” That means instead of flowing directly to school districts through the formula, much of the new money has gone to the PED, where it has been spent on specific initiatives like statewide common assessments and reading coaches for qualifying districts. Early childhood education is also funded below-the-line.

Smith said the report is not accurate because it doesn’t include that new money. “We’ve leaned over backward during the tough economic times to hold education as harmless as possible – that and Medicaid,” he said. “And then under this administration, we’ve been putting more and more money below the line.”

Education chief Hanna Skandera has said below-the-line funding improves accountability, because money is spent on specific programs instead of funneled to school districts for them to spend at their discretion. Some school district administrators and board members have opposed the below-the-line strategy, however, saying it doesn’t help districts pay for operating costs like teacher salaries.

David Abbey, Legislative Finance Committee director, also questioned the study’s methods, specifically the use of inflation-adjusted dollars. “I disagree with characterizing inflation-adjusted dollars as cuts,” he said, adding, “that’s not to say that there isn’t inflation and it isn’t a factor to consider when we build budgets, but it pushes up the cost of government in ways that aren’t productive.”

New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonprofit advocacy group, sent out a news release about the report that urged increased spending.

“When it comes to investing in human capital – which is the only way forward for states in terms of economic development – New Mexico has been moving in the wrong direction,” said Veronica García, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children.

PED spokesman Larry Behrens said in an email that Voices for Children’s assertions are “overtly political and false.” Behrens said New Mexico’s education spending has increased to pre-recession levels, even though overall revenues have not. He said this shows that the Martinez administration is investing a higher proportion of state revenues into education than was invested before the recession.

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