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Report: New Mexico school spending tumbles

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s education funding is about 12 percent below pre-recession levels when adjusted for inflation, according to a new national report.

However, the state Public Education Department points out that Gov. Susana Martinez has boosted school spending overall during her tenure.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a D.C.-based progressive nonprofit organization, said New Mexico is among 29 states allocating less to the classroom than in 2008. The report – “A Punishing Decade for School Funding” – uses inflation-adjusted 2015 data and also does not consider federal investments.

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By that measure, New Mexico ranks 15th for spending reductions, occupying a tier that includes California, South Dakota, South Carolina and North Carolina – all states with inflation-adjusted funding levels around 12 percent below 2008.

Overall, Arizona fared the worst, with a 37 percent reduction. On the other end, North Dakota’s per-pupil spending has ballooned by 96 percent thanks to revenues from the fracking boom.

Michael Leachman, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities director of state fiscal research, said education cuts have had a variety of negative impacts across the country, such as “layoffs, shorter school years and bigger class sizes.”

“Those sorts of cuts are damaging not only to the experiences of students, but also to the national economy,” he said during a media call last week.

PED spokeswoman Lida Alikhani countered that it’s irresponsible to assume that state-by-state differences in education spending are rooted in politics because the recession did not affect all states equally.

A better comparison, Alikhani said, is education funding as a percentage of overall state spending, as opposed to raw dollar amounts. This approach smooths out the different rates of recovery across states, she argued.

“There is no question that the recession of 2008 had a dramatic impact on state budgets across the nation, but since taking office, Governor Martinez has dramatically raised the amount of money flowing into classrooms across the state,” Alikhani said.

From 2011 to 2015, New Mexico education spending grew by nearly $400 million – a more than 16 percent increase. The state ranked 34th for education spending in the 2015-2016 school year, up from 36th in 2013-2014 and 44th in 1992-1993.

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Still, New Mexico’s $9,752 per-student allocation remains below the national average, and its educational outcomes are among the worst in the country.

Worsening shortfall

Gail Evans, New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty legal director, told the Journal that the New Mexico education system was underfunded before the recession, and now the situation is worse.

New Mexico currently allocates $2.7 billion for public education out of its total $6.2 billion budget.

In 2008, a study commissioned by the Legislature stated that New Mexico schools should receive an additional $350 million. The same expert re-examined the numbers for 2015 and found the need had grown to $600 million.

This summer, the N.M. Center on Law and Poverty joined with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to fight the state in Santa Fe’s 1st District Court for more education money. State District Judge Sarah Singleton will rule on their combined lawsuit in early 2018.

“Even though the governor likes to say that we put more money into education now than we ever have, that’s very misleading because when you adjust the education budget for inflation, we actually put less money in education than we used to,” Evans said.

Several members of the Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education also regularly decry funding levels.

During a recent budget discussion, board member Barbara Petersen said the district is often forced to “rob Peter to pay Paul” because there is not enough money to cover all its needs.

APS endured two rounds of budget cuts in the past fiscal year, adding up to a $25 million loss, and responded by reducing some employees’ salaries and not filling many non-classroom positions.

Last month, APS was able to put $6.6 million back into the district – money that had been set aside in May to cover a possible midyear state budget reduction that never materialized.

There is more good news on the horizon.

Public education is expected to get a financial boost in the coming year from New Mexico’s two major sovereign wealth funds, based on investment returns and income from the oil sector this year.

The State Investment Council estimates that New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund and Severance Tax Permanent Fund are likely to pay out $963 million for the coming fiscal year, a $64 million increase from the fiscal year that started in July.

The value of the two funds climbed to a combined $21.8 billion at the end of September.

The majority of annual distributions go directly toward public schools. About $200 million flows to the state’s general fund, which also underwrites public education.

Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan think tank, has argued that there is little to no correlation between student success and the total dollars spent per pupil: Some states are spending less than New Mexico, yet seeing much stronger outcomes.

A recent report from the think tank argues that districts could improve by allocating more money directly to schools and less to central administration.

This change would “provide an immediate boost in spending in areas that make the most difference for students, such as teacher and principal pay and training,” according to Fred Nathan, Think New Mexico founder and executive director.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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