Infrastructure is defined as the underlying foundation necessary to sustain and improve an organization, a community, a state and even a nation. Public infrastructure, sometimes called hard infrastructure, includes things like roads, a supply of clean water, a reliable power grid, and other factors necessary for a high-quality life. They are important beyond merely sustaining a quality life. They are necessary to improve outcomes. To make lives better.
However, there is also a social infrastructure necessary to sustain and improve things. These forms are often called soft infrastructure. Foremost among these are schools. A strong pre-K-through-university education system is absolutely necessary to improve outcomes and, in a state where we struggle with poverty and child welfare, schools are critically important. It is tough to imagine much improvement in outcomes without significant and consistent efforts to strengthen school infrastructure.
It is the consistent, or more specifically the lack of consistent, support of educational infrastructure, particularly public higher education, that is clearly one variable inhibiting our efforts to improve the quality of life in New Mexico. For example, a few years ago, the inflation rate in the United States was 3.2% yet the funding to institutions of higher education decreased 5.6%. More recently, the inflation rate was 2.3%, and funding to colleges and universities decreased 7.3%. New Mexico higher education funding has been and remains on a wild roller coaster ride, making even moderate-term planning and improvements almost impossible. As is true in many states, higher education funding has been used as a kind of balancing wheel to make the state budget work, and when dollars are taken from colleges and universities, the only real solution is to increase costs to students. That’s a common strategy here and in some other states resulting in more and more student debt.
What to do? Decreasing reliance on gas and oil extraction would definitely help, but thus far, the lure of reliance on that sector has proven too strong to ignore. One small step we could embrace is a difference in thinking about support of pre-K-16 education. Perhaps we should think about pre-K-16 as an infrastructure investment – the best short, moderate and long-term path to improved state outcomes. That could really make a difference.
People suffer in communities and states with poor infrastructure. Not many people want to live somewhere with an unreliable water or power supply. It is tough to convince anyone to move somewhere with poor roads and little or no public transportation. In 2020, a weak or nonexistent internet network will simply not attract new businesses. The same is true for forms of social infrastructure, particularly pre-K-16 public education.
I hope that decision-makers come to think about consistent support of that particular form of social infrastructure as a critical investment – maybe the most critical investment – to improve important outcomes for our beautiful state. The people of New Mexico deserve it.