N.M. in middle on per-pupil spending

SANTA FE, N.M. — Ranking differs from state’s low spot on other lists

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico often finds itself near the bottom of lists, whether ranking student test scores, family incomes or the percentage of adults with high school diplomas. A recent study placed the state dead last for child well-being.

But per-student education spending is one list that places New Mexico around the middle. Depending on the study, New Mexico is between 25th and 37th in per-student spending.

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State education chief Hanna Skandera said that the disparity between New Mexico’s middle-of-the-pack spending and its sluggish test scores shows that funding without accountability doesn’t deliver results.

But state American Federation of Teachers President Stephanie Ly said New Mexico has to spend more per student to make up for the poverty and challenges students face at home.

State spending comparisons vary, depending on the group doing the analysis and the sources of data each uses. The National Education Association, a teachers union, placed New Mexico at 25th in per-student spending for the 2011-12 school year. That report, released in December, shows New Mexico spending $10,203 per student.

That’s less than the national average of $10,834.

The U.S. Census Bureau offers a different set of data, released in May, that places New Mexico in 37th place for per-student spending, at $9,070 per student in fiscal 2011.

New York tops both lists, spending more than $18,000 per student. Utah is at or near the bottom of both lists, spending less than $7,000 per student.

School districts have argued for years that New Mexico is not providing “sufficient” education funding, which is required by the state constitution. The Santa Fe Public Schools board recently set aside $100,000 to sue the state for sufficient funds, although it has not filed suit yet.

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Despite New Mexico’s middle-of-the-pack spending, the state consistently scores near the bottom on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, a test taken by a sample of students in all 50 states.

While New Mexico’s math scores are improving, the state’s fourth- and eighth-graders ranked among the bottom 10 states in both math and reading, according to the 2011 NAEP data. A recent report also placed New Mexico’s graduation rate at 50th in the country, although that report was based on the class of 2010.

Skandera said this shows that spending alone doesn’t lead to academic improvement. During her term, Gov. Susana Martinez has used what she calls a “targeted” strategy for education funding, which means funding particular programs instead of funneling money to school districts.

“You’ll see the governor constantly championing targeted investments and accountability,” Skandera said. “The data that you’re talking about only proves this point.”

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said New Mexico has funded education well and avoided teacher layoffs, despite limited tax revenue.

“We’re in the middle, and I don’t find that to be an uncomfortable place to be, given our resources,” Smith said.

But Ly said New Mexico’s spending should be among the highest in the nation to help students overcome challenges in their home lives. “As the state with most kids in poverty, we should be No. 1 in funding education, because we recognize as a country and as a state that it costs more to educate those kids.”

According to the census report, New Mexico does spend more than most states on student support services. The Census report broke spending out into categories like teacher salaries and general administration. New Mexico’s spending was lower than the national average in all categories except “pupil support,” which includes money spent on social work, counseling and speech therapy, for example.

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According to the Census data, New Mexico spends $917 per student on “pupil support,” compared to a national average of $590.

Ly also said per-pupil spending doesn’t give an accurate picture of how much the state invests in education, since the rankings include federal money aimed at helping low-income students and those with disabilities.

New Mexico’s federal share is significant. According to the NEA report, New Mexico was second only to Oklahoma in the percentage of its education funding that came from the federal government – 17.1 percent.

Skandera said that poverty should not be used as an excuse for poor test scores and that New Mexico’s funding formula does channel more money to schools and districts where more students are low income or learning English.

“It is not OK to use poverty or any other excuse in the name of serving our kids and putting them first and delivering for them,” Skandera said.

Opinions on the matter vary in the state Legislature, which has the most responsibility for funding education.

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said poverty isn’t an excuse but is a reality for New Mexico’s students. She said it costs more to provide services to low-income students and those learning English, and it can take longer for those students to catch up to their peers.

“We have a larger population of at-risk students,” Stewart said. “They can learn, they do learn, they’re just as intelligent as everyone else, but they’re not on the same timetable.”

She also said education in New Mexico is expensive because it is so rural, resulting in small school districts with high transportation costs. All the more reason to improve efficiency, said Smith, adding that the state should consolidate some of its smaller school districts to stretch dollars further. Smith said that just because New Mexico has needy students doesn’t mean its taxpayers can afford a steeper bill.

Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Utah all spend less per student than New Mexico, according to both the NEA report and the Census Bureau report.

“When I’ve looked at surrounding states on what they contribute vs. what we contribute, it seems to me that we’ve made a pretty darn good effort,” Smith said.

Sources: NEA “Rankings and Estimates”; United States Census Bureau “Public Education Finances.”

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