Editor’s note: The Journal – in collaboration with KOAT-TV and KKOB radio – is embarking on a yearlong special report, “The Literacy Project,” on New Mexico’s literacy crisis. The first installment of the series was published in the Sunday Journal and can be found at ABQJournal.com.
Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For decades, the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy delivered funding throughout the state to help adults learn to read.
But its operations largely ground to a halt last fall.
The coalition lost state funding in 2020 as the state Higher Education Department shifted to a new strategy – awarding grants directly to adult literacy programs throughout New Mexico, rather than hiring the coalition to manage the system and distribute the money.
The change, state officials say, was intended to establish a more equitable, transparent system of funding.
But it had a devastating impact on the Coalition for Literacy, which laid off the few staff members it had. The group closed its office space and now survives on volunteer support.
“It was just heartbreaking,” said Amy Jo Sandoval, who worked on the group’s finances for 10 years and now runs a Santa Fe accounting business. “It just came out of nowhere.”
Founded in 1987, the coalition has been a key statewide voice in New Mexico’s push to improve adult literacy – a critical challenge in one of the poorest states in the nation. For years, it had a contract to manage and support a network of adult-literacy providers throughout the state.
But the Higher Education Department contends the state’s new approach to funding will make it easier to ensure coordination with other programs and provide comprehensive services to more New Mexicans.
“The 2020 grant competition for literacy funding was designed with the aim of providing quality literacy services equitably across the state,” Higher Education Department spokeswoman Stephanie Montoya said in a written statement to the Journal.
In an interview, Braden Anderson, president of the coalition’s board, said the group is now running on a “ghost budget.” Finances are so tight that Anderson is examining how to reduce the $6 monthly cost to host the coalition’s web presence.
“We’re working with what we can right now,” Anderson said. “We have every intention to regain that funding.”
Higher Education does not have a comprehensive list of adult literacy services and programs in the state, and the NMCL has tried to keep up with available programs on its website, but that has been down for some time. Anderson said they are working on it.
‘Close to my heart’
The coalition was launched in 1987 under then-Gov. Garrey Carruthers with help from first lady Kathy Carruthers, after the 1986 election.
Kathy, a speed reader and book lover, said the need for a statewide literacy group grew clear as she traveled throughout New Mexico. She was surprised, she said, to learn that so many adults had cleverly managed to succeed without learning to read – a skill they often had little opportunity to pick up on their own.
“It felt like something that was very close to my heart,” Kathy Carruthers said in a recent interview.
A group of volunteers established the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy, helping secure funding for local organizations throughout the state and coordinate their efforts.
Decades later, Anderson said, the coalition was operating on a budget of $250,000 to $700,000 a year, the bulk of it from state and federal sources.
It contracted with the Higher Education Department to manage a statewide adult literacy program.
Anderson, who owns a web development company and is the coalition’s board president, said the group operated as a clearinghouse of sorts, requesting proposals from throughout the state and allocating the funding where it was needed most.
The coalition’s last contract was for four years, expiring last summer. The agreement called for state funding of up to $661,000 a year.
But rather than pursue a similar arrangement last year, the Higher Education Department opted instead to issue a request for awards – a system that awarded funding to a variety of groups throughout the state.
The purple text
The Coalition for Literacy applied for funding but didn’t get any.
It submitted a 330-page application – parts of which questioned the state’s shift to a request for awards.
State reviewers weren’t impressed. Members of the review committee said the application was confusing and incomplete, according to Higher Education Department documents.
They took issue with the color of the text – purple – and the relevance of some photos, one of which was a picture of a coalition staffer and others with the caption “#legends.” The application is dotted with inspirational quotes and anecdotes. It was far longer than competing applications.
“I found the applicant’s responses to be surprisingly unprofessional throughout the application,” one reviewer wrote.
Another said: “Wow! Lots of veiled and not so veiled threats and accusations; very unprofessional response.”
A third said: “As an outside evaluator, the whole thing strikes me as awkward. If it’s to tell someone off, that seems off as well.”
After losing out, the coalition questioned the fairness of the award process and asked the Higher Education Department to extend its contract.
“It appears as though NMCL was written out of plans before the RFA was issued,” the coalition wrote.
‘Our big fear’
In interviews, Anderson said some of the state’s criticism of the application was justified.
But the coalition, he said, was still well positioned to carry out its work and collaborate with other literacy groups throughout the state, ensuring the funding reaches rural areas where literacy needs are highest.
“Our big fear is that a whole lot of these funds aren’t making it to the most needy parts of our state,” Anderson said.
The Higher Education Department disputes that rural areas have been left behind.
Most of the groups that received funding through the coalition still get funding, either directly from the state or through sub-grants, according to Montoya, the state spokeswoman.
The department, she said, also operates a network of adult basic education programs that reach throughout New Mexico, with literacy a central part of the mission of the department’s Adult Education Division.
The successful applicants include the Rio Arriba Adult Literacy Program, San Juan College, University of New Mexico-Taos, Gordon Bernell Charter School, Valencia County Literacy Council and Albuquerque Adult Learning Center, among others.
“These programs sub-grant to an additional seven adult literacy programs throughout the state, most of which are in more rural areas,” Montoya said.
A map published by the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 29% of New Mexico’s adults are at or below the lowest level of literacy, putting them at risk of difficulty understanding printed material. That 29% is 7 points higher than the national average.
State Rep. Christine Trujillo, an Albuquerque Democrat and retired teacher, said there are strengths and weakness to any approach the Higher Education Department takes – contracting with one coalition or distributing the money on its own.
Either way, she said, strengthening the reading skills of adults in New Mexico “is hugely important.”
Anderson said he and the coalition remain committed to boosting adult literacy however they can.
For now, they are still able to refer students and tutors to other programs.
“We don’t want to completely give that up,” Anderson said. “There’s no reason to quit.”
The Higher Education Department plans to accept new applications for adult literacy funding in 2024.