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Schooling poor kids requires more funding

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Ask any parent with children enrolled in New Mexico’s public schools about the lack of resources and opportunities for children in our schools. Over the last five years, we have seen teacher positions eliminated and class sizes increase, sometimes double, and as a consequence, teacher aides disappear, art and music classes become a 30-minutes-a-week luxury.

We have been required to buy basic operating materials for our children’s schools: copying paper, chalk, dry erase markers, soap and towels, tissues, hand sanitizer, in addition to buying paper, pencils, crayons, scissors and glue for the classroom.

We have seen dedicated and talented principals and teachers struggling to teach large classes without a teaching aide or reading specialist – without even enough books for every child to take one home – trying to teach the many students we have in New Mexico who come to school with extra barriers to learning because they live in poverty, or are not proficient in English, or have special learning needs.

No surprise then, that New Mexico consistently ranks at the bottom of all states on educational achievement.

Most recently, we tied with Mississippi for dead last in the country for reading and math scores. Only one in five of our students can read at grade level. And by the time our students hit eighth grade, only one in five can do math at grade level.

One in five!

A major reason for this ongoing failure is that we have many more children living in poverty than most states. Education research has consistently shown that child poverty is the most significant barrier to a child’s success in school, greater than minority status or whether a student’s parents graduated from high school.

National research indicates 40 percent of the variation in average reading scores and 46 percent of the variation in average math scores across the country are directly determined by whether a student lives in poverty. While some variances in scores correlate with race, ethnicity and cultural background, the gap on test scores between rich and poor is almost twice as large as the gap on scores between black and white children.

Educational experts recognize that it requires extra resources to help children from low-income families succeed in school. Most school systems direct additional money to provide additional resources for these students. But New Mexico is again tied with Mississippi for providing the least amount of extra money to enrich the education of at-risk students. While some states provide up to 50 percent more money per at-risk student, New Mexico provides only an additional 9 percent.

Spending as much money on at-risk students as do other states will not alone improve education of our children. We need to ensure that education funds are spent on evidence-based educational practices that enhance the opportunities for students to succeed. Tracking results and accountability are critical.

But we can start with what evidence indicates will work: well-trained and well-paid teachers; adequate numbers of quality teachers’ aides, properly trained reading specialists and support services; parental engagement and integrating music and art into the curriculum.

For decades, smart and talented education leaders in New Mexico have struggled to bring these resources to our children but conflicting ideologies and politics have commonly resulted in good ideas going underfunded.

Even with this year’s increase in the education budget, we are not back to 2008 levels of funding, when experts and policy makers on both sides of the aisle agreed that our schools were already underfunded.

We must not accept our current under-resourced schools as our norm. Our children are no less capable than other children across the country. They simply need the opportunities to succeed in school. Schools, in turn, need the resources to supply opportunities.

The New Mexico Constitution requires “a uniform system of free public schools sufficient for the education of, and open to, all the children of school age in the state….” The low educational outcomes in our state are proof alone that New Mexico is not meeting its constitutional mandate.

It is time to ask the courts to enforce the state Constitution.

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