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NM has been shorting its public schools for years

A recent court ruling declared that New Mexico is not providing a sufficient public education to our students in violation of our state’s Constitution. While I was certainly not surprised that the Journal would urge the state to appeal that ruling, the (Dec. 21) editorial on this subject was misinformed and perpetuated significant myths about education funding.

Judge (Sarah) Singleton, a veteran and respected jurist, simply concluded what educators had known for years: New Mexico has not provided the educational programs or funding necessary to effectively prepare our youth for college or career success.

Schools have not been given the resources to attract, retain and support teachers, nor to provide adequate instructional materials and technology, or uniform access to quality pre-K and other known successful programs.

More than a decade ago, the Legislature sponsored a major independent study that demonstrated New Mexico was then under-funding schools by 15 percent. That funding gap widened in subsequent years as our national and local economies struggled, and our public schools endured annual, even mid-year, funding reductions. Sadly, no action was taken in response to those findings. Instead, the reaction in the state Senate was, literally, “you’ll have to sue to get that kind of additional money.”

So, students, who were then in kindergarten and just graduated in May 2018, were both deprived of the educational supports they needed and deserved, while also being “blamed,” along with their teachers, for any and all performance shortcomings. Another entire cohort/generation of students was essentially lost due to legislative inaction.

One recurring myth is that New Mexico shouldn’t be “throwing money at the problem,” as though to suggest that had been somehow tried before, but apparently failed. That has absolutely never happened.

There wasn’t even an acknowledgement of the overwhelming challenges our students, families and educators face in New Mexico until the mid ’90s when the state instituted some modest, extra funding reflective of each district’s students’ at-risk profile. But, by all national indicators, that add-on is still woefully inadequate. New Mexico needs to provide significant additional resources for our students and families to succeed, not some middle of the national pack funding commitment. Otherwise, N.M.’s low-income students simply don’t have a level playing field. Our students’ at-risk profile exceeds virtually every other state. The court rightfully concluded that our schools require more funding for at-risk students.

The Journal’s suggestion that earmarking 44 percent of the state budget for K-12 education demonstrates something wonderful ignores the fact that New Mexico’s original school funding lawsuit ended the reliance on local property tax revenue and created the State Equalization Guarantee. This is dramatically different from the way other states fund public education, making any comparisons of target percentages of the overall state budget a false metric. “Equalization” and “sufficiency” are not synonyms!

The Journal also creates a new myth that nobody knows what compliance will cost or require, and that the judge may arbitrarily pick funding amounts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plaintiffs, their counsel and numerous expert witnesses have offered clear estimates of needed services and projected costs. The fact that there may still be ongoing debate over specific implementation details and timelines is simply part of the normal legislative process.

The Constitution calls for education sufficiency for all public school students. The judge’s decision gives the state and our legislators the opportunity to respond and take action by April. However, there is no escape clause that lets the state violate the Constitution if it is dealing with economic downturns or fluctuating oil prices. The court noted the testimony from witnesses about numerous ways the state could stabilize and increase revenues to fund education.

Sufficiency for public schools is enshrined in our Constitution and must be a priority. Let’s stop feeling sorry for the state’s persistent budget problems, and actually focus on student needs and solutions? Please.

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