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Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – “It depends.”
Christopher Ruszkowski, New Mexico’s acting Public Education secretary, gave that brief answer to question after question concerning the impact of funding on student outcomes Monday in 1st Judicial District Court.
Ruszkowski did not answer conclusively whether money automatically improves results as he testified in a landmark case centered on New Mexico’s education spending.
The lawsuit, filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, claims that New Mexico’s public education funding is inadequate and violates the state Constitution by disproportionately impacting low-income, minority and special education students.
Judge Sarah Singleton will rule after the nine-week trial, which is in its sixth week. Ruszkowski is the first witness called by the state. The plaintiffs concluded their case on Friday.
On the stand, Ruszkowski emphasized that money alone is not guaranteed to boost New Mexico’s test scores, graduation rates or other measures.
During a sometimes testy exchange with MALDEF attorney Martin Estrada, Ruszkowski said education funding must be used on quality programs that are managed well at the district and school level.
“It all depends on the quality of the implementation,” Ruszkowski said.
Some New Mexico districts have improved while others have remained flat because of differences in the way programs are implemented, Ruszkowski said.
Estrada asked Ruszkowski about a number of disheartening statistics for New Mexico, which languishes near the bottom of the nation on nearly every measure of educational success. Only 71 percent of high school seniors earned a cap and gown in 2016 – 12 percentage points below the national average. Statewide scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test have increased, but are still dismal: 28 percent proficiency in English and 20 percent in math.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Ruszkowski said repeatedly.
While saying there is a long way to go, Ruszkowski stressed that New Mexico is now on the right track and has seen growth in graduation rates, standardized assessment results and Advanced Placement test rates.
Ruszkowski said his predecessor, Hanna Skandera, “raised the bar” by implementing tougher standards, like PARCC, and a teacher evaluation system tied in part to student standardized test scores.
These measures are providing “honest feedback” to students, parents and educators, Ruszkowski said.
Some other states have not had the “intestinal fortitude” to maintain high standards, he added, citing states like Mississippi and Tennessee, which abandoned the PARCC test.
Nine states are currently associated with PARCC in some form, down from more than two dozen in 2010.
States that have moved away from PARCC may be showing higher proficiency rates, but they have lowered the bar, Ruszkowski said.
“When we tell (students) they are proficient, they are not going to get to college and not be ready,” Ruszkowski said.
He also took issue with the view that poverty drives poor education outcomes – a stance often expressed by the state’s teachers unions.
Ruszkowski characterized this attitude as “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and said the New Mexico Public Education Department is balancing honesty and optimism.
The state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act is working for that balance by setting ambitious but attainable goals, he said.
It aims to have 80 percent of New Mexico students reach graduation by 2020 while also demanding higher PARCC scores.
The plan was rated as the best of the 17 submitted in April by a bipartisan panel assembled by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success, though New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorney Mark Fine questioned whether the reviewers were biased in favor of certain reforms.
Ruszkowski, who became acting secretary June 20 after a surprise announcement that Skandera would step down, said he is proud of the state’s progress in recent years.
New Mexico has had the strength to “stay the course” and kept standards high, he said.