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Editorial: N.M.’s experience shows higher financial inputs don’t deliver higher academic outputs

State District Judge Sarah Singleton is absolutely right when she points out that the “vast majority of New Mexico’s at-risk children finish each school year without the basic literacy and math skills needed to pursue post-secondary education or a career.”

And she’s right when she notes that the majority of this state’s children can’t read or do math at grade level. Our state’s proficiency rates are downright appalling, and it’s unacceptable.

Yes, we agree with her that education is vital to our democracy, and every child in this state can learn and deserves a solid education.

But the landmark ruling Singleton issued July 20 that the state is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a “sufficient” education and ordering state lawmakers and the governor to pump more money into the system suffers from a fatal flaw and should be appealed.

The harsh reality is that it takes a lot more than just increased funding to bring about success in the classroom.

Just look at Rio Grande High School. Millions of dollars in extra funding have been poured into the Albuquerque South Valley school since 1987, when a U.S. Justice Department mediator helped hammer out an improvement plan for the chronically underperforming school. At the heart of the resulting Sambrano Agreement was the idea that students in the South Valley deserved the same quality education as their more affluent counterparts in the Northeast Heights.

Over the ensuing three decades, Albuquerque Public Schools tried a dizzying array of reforms, everything from early childhood programs for South Valley children and summer programs to smaller class sizes and even $5,000 stipends for teachers.

So 31 years later, how many Rio Grande students are doing math and reading at grade level? In math, fewer than 6 percent; in English, just 28 percent. Statewide, 22 percent of students can do math at grade level, and 31 percent can read.

We must continue trying to improve educational outcomes, and attempting to address achievement gaps between minority, poor or disabled students and their white, middle-class counterparts. But it takes hard work and data-driven reform.

Singleton gave the state until April 15 to find more funds for schools, although she doesn’t say what would be deemed adequate. As for where that money would come from, she throws out several possibilities, including taking more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund and increasing taxes.

State’s public school spending

New Mexico already spends 44 percent of its recurring appropriations on public schools, and lawmakers are continually pumping more money into education – a total of $2.7 billion this year. Since 2011, New Mexico education spending has grown by about $450 million.

Over the last seven years, lawmakers and the governor have doubled spending on programs aimed at helping young children and their families.

In her ruling, Singleton cites testimony that New Mexico offers one of the lowest wages for teachers in the country and that New Mexico ranks 41st in state spending per student.

But that’s at odds with other studies. A study conducted by USA Today and published just this May shows New Mexico ranks 27th among the 50 states when it comes to teacher pay. The median salary for school teachers in New Mexico is $54,599 in a state where the median household income overall is close to $47,000. The USA Today study also finds that New Mexico’s per pupil expenditure ranks 33rd among all states, spending $10,768 per student. Our state spends more on a per-student basis than Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Texas.

Districts’ complaints

Singleton’s ruling also notes many school district witnesses testified they do not have the funds to provide adequate services for English Language Learner students and they don’t have the funding to hire the teachers they need to have manageable class sizes.

Yet a bill that would have required school districts to allocate more money to classrooms instead of administration didn’t even make it out of the Legislature this year. And then you have school districts dragging their feet on reforming schools that have failed their students multiple years running.

Meanwhile, you have districts such as Farmington, with low income students, embracing programs offered by PED and improving their proficiency rates. In fact, Farmington had the highest reading proficiency rate this year among the 10 largest districts in the state.

Singleton also takes aim at the teacher evaluation system, writing that, “In general, punitive teacher evaluation systems that penalize teachers for working in high-need schools” contribute to the problem. In fact, New Mexico’s teacher evaluation system grades teachers, in part, on whether their students show growth on annual tests. And even then, that only accounts for at most 30 percent of their evaluation. It is, however, ironic the judge is criticizing this accountability measure in one breadth, while calling on the state Public Education Department to hold districts accountable in the next.

Accountability

A silver lining to this ruling is that Singleton makes it clear that beyond pumping more money into schools, PED must hold districts accountable.

“The new scheme should include a system of accountability to measure whether the programs and services actually provide the opportunity for a sound basic education and to assure that the local districts are spending the funds provided in a way that efficiently and effectively meets the needs of at-risk students,” she wrote.

If this ruling stands, PED must work hard to ensure that every penny of that extra money is spent in the classroom. And the agency should look at Texico and Gadsden – which already work hard to allocate a greater percentage of their resources to the classroom – as role models.

That said, this ruling should be appealed because it’s bad law and bad public policy.

State leaders can raise taxes and pump vast amounts of new money into schools but, à la Rio Grande High, that’s not going to fix our low proficiency rates. What will work is data-driven programs and hard work from students, teachers, parents and state officials, but it has been and will continue to be a slow, incremental progress, something Singleton clearly has no patience for.

This is such a significant case that Gov. Susana Martinez and the state Public Education Department should ask the state Supreme Court to take it up immediately.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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