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Editorial: Budget will ensure more money gets to NM’s classrooms

“The administrative overhead in our schools is outrageous. (Changing that is) going to be hard. Everyone is going to fight it. And you know what? They are all supporting me. Great. But if they think I’m not taking on this fight, they don’t know who I am. We’re taking it on. You have to. It’s outrageous.”

– Then-candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham

“I have vowed to make my administration’s educational priorities — indeed, priorities in any issue area — abundantly clear. Students come first.”

– Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Two years ago, our now-governor was ready to ensure more of the billions of dollars New Mexico taxpayers allocate to K-12 education go to classrooms. This year, the state Legislature has given her the mechanism to do just that.

Now all the state’s students, parents and taxpayers need is for Lujan Grisham to sign HB 2, the state’s budget bill, and keep intact an essential provision that mandates a higher percentage of classroom spending in public schools.

The 227-page, $7.6 billion appropriations legislation allows the governor to line-item veto specific items. It would be a travesty to our children to see the provision stricken.

For Albuquerque Public Schools, the bill requires that 80% of its general fund be spent on instruction, student support services and instructional support services – i.e. teachers, materials, principals, counselors – things and individuals who directly impact the learning day.

For the state’s other 88 school districts and 100-plus charter schools, the Public Education Department is directed to reject budgets that spend significantly less in the classroom than peer districts.

It’s an essential piece of being accountable to students and taxpayers. A 2017 report by Think New Mexico, a Santa Fe-based think tank, found that just 57 cents of every dollar meant for public schools went to instruction, meaning 43 cents goes for everything from administrative travel to public relations and lobbyists. Think New Mexico found between 2006 and 2017, 61 of the state’s 89 school districts grew central office administrative spending faster than classroom spending. According to the Legislature’s finance staff, statewide spending on administration grew by 34% in the past decade, double the growth in classroom spending.

That’s shortchanging taxpayers and especially students. The need to ensure funding gets to them has been amplified by the huge increases in recent years. HB 2 includes a $216.8 million increase for the state’s public primary and secondary schools. That boost comes on the heels of an extra $447 million added in 2019. New Mexico now dedicates $3.47 billion a year to our K-12 public schools.

And while an impetus for the increases is the landmark 2018 Yazzie/Martinez court ruling, in which the late Judge Sarah Singleton ruled the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education for all students, especially those considered “at risk,” Singleton also wrote that PED and school districts were not doing enough to ensure money is spent in ways that will improve outcomes for at-risk students.

Look no further for proof of that than the fact just 30% of N.M. students can read at grade level and 20% can do grade-level math. Getting more money to the classrooms those children are in is essential to improving those numbers.

In 2018 Democratic Rep. Bobby Gonzales, former superintendent of Taos Municipal Schools and now a member of the state Senate, and Republican Rep. Larry Larrañaga, who passed away later that year, wrote an op-ed published in the Journal emphasizing “how education dollars are spent is as important as how much is spent.”

There is $3.47 billion on the K-12 line this year, and our students and their futures deserve so much more than 57 cents on the dollar. When HB 2 is signed into law, complete with that provision, New Mexico will know its Legislature and governor agree.

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.