Amid the exuberance over soaring state revenues thanks to an upturn in oil and gas prices, and dueling budget proposals from Gov. Susana Martinez and the Legislature that both increase spending on education, it is easy to overlook the fact that New Mexico is still massively short-changing its classrooms. These earnest efforts of legislators from both parties to lift our state from worst-in-the-nation for education may obscure how much more still needs to be done. Building a modern education system that is globally competitive will demand much greater commitment of resources and willingness to prioritize policies of teachers and local administrators.
Regardless of which education budget is adopted, this year will see an increase of between $51 million and $73 million more for classrooms after declines during the last few years. It is good news for students, and the educators and schools that support them. Still, there are tremendous unmet needs in New Mexico’s classrooms. Both proposals fall short of funding needed to meet them. A spring decision is expected from state District Court on the pending matter of our constitutional duty to fund public education sufficiently. It may result in the Legislature and governor re-thinking how to allocate dollars to our public education system.
The K-12 education budget will make up about 44 percent of the entire New Mexico budget this year, as it has in the past. Two competing education budgets now are being considered, one by the state Public Education Department (PED) and the other by the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC). Both proposals would spend approximately the same amount on education, but there are significant differences between them. The PED would like a 12 percent increase in discretionary dollars, and the LFC budget is proposing a smaller increase, 2 percent. These funds are often the subject of contention because local schools and school boards believe they know better what is needed for their schools, and how money can be used more effectively than PED. The PED uses the discretionary funds to implement often experimental and unproven policies.
While both the LFC and PED budgets contain small across-the-board salary increases for teachers, the largest pay proposal by the PED is for “merit pay.” PED says that merit pay for teachers leads to better student performance. This reward system would apply to only 4 percent of teachers, however, and to virtually no special education teachers. I have reviewed the recent study used by the PED to support merit pay. The data used in the study did not meet the criteria the PED has established to distribute merit pay. In fact after a thorough review of all studies, merit pay has only a minimal effect on student scores. It is a costly $7 million PED policy that could be better used by allowing districts to decide how to reward high-performing teachers and/or incentivize struggling ones.
Among the toughest decisions this legislative body made last year was to sweep approximately $40 million of cash balances from school districts during last year’s severe state revenue crisis. My hope is we find a way to restore these critical monies to districts that rely on them to carry them until federal dollars are deposited.
Neither budget contains certain key priorities of teachers, principals, superintendents, or the Legislative Education Study Committee – the legislature’s policy arm. Unmet needs include insufficient funding for student career development, school transportation and textbooks – why many education advocates want a real voice in setting budget priorities.
Public schools in New Mexico need resources, and it is our responsibility as legislators to deliver them. As chair of the Senate Education Committee, I will continue to champion locally elected and accountable school boards and the districts they represent. They usually know best how to allocate the resources to produce real results for our students. Our children’s futures – and the future of New Mexico – are too valuable to be used for ideologically-driven policies. New Mexico’s teachers are professionals, and they put our children first. To turn around our education system, we must get them the resources to do the job.