Editorial: Money alone hasn't fixed NM's education system - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Money alone hasn’t fixed NM’s education system

As absentee and limited in-person early voting begin Tuesday, voters will get to decide if New Mexico takes an extra 1.25% out of the Land Grant Permanent School Fund, roughly $211 million a year, for early childhood education and schools.

The idea of spending more on our youngest students, who proponents are quick to say are our future, strikes a chord with the public. The latest Journal Poll found 69% of likely voters support increasing the withdrawal from 5%.

But voters should know school districts are returning hundreds of millions of dollars every year they can’t spend.

In addition, there is no data to show the $1 billion they have spent specifically to help Indigenous, English learner, economically disadvantaged and disabled students has left those students “any better off.”

Legislative Finance Committee analysts say schools have collectively forgone $400 million for extended learning time and data-driven K-5 Plus programs for “at-risk” students. They’ve also held back more and more money in their cash balances, and at the end of last fiscal year, districts and charter schools were collectively carrying over $525.5 million.

That’s nearly a billion dollars unspent and a billion dollars spent with no idea of any return on investment for kids. It’s unsurprising barely a third of New Mexico students can read at grade level and only a quarter are proficient in math.

According to what’s going unspent, and spent, money isn’t the problem proponents of Constitutional Amendment 1 would have voters believe. Instead, legislative panels point to lack of a real plan for success as well as accountability in our K-12 public school system. A Legislative Finance Committee report blames districts for four long years of problems implementing remedies to the court’s landmark 2018 Yazzie-Martinez findings, and the state Public Education Department for not ensuring districts do right by our kids.

Evaluator Rachel Mercer Garcia says “implementation and oversight challenges remain hurdles to improving student outcomes. … Given the learning loss associated with the pandemic, New Mexico faces a heightened need to really ensure resources are directed toward evidence-based programs to help support students and catch them up.”

The Journal Editorial Board has been highly critical of PED’s so-called action plan to address the court’s concerns. Alisa Diehl, a New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorney on the team representing the Yazzie plaintiffs, says it doesn’t include short- and long-term action steps aligned with court findings or that achieve the goals laid out for the state. Nor does it detail what needs to change to meet those goals, no cost and budget analyses, no estimated increases in staffing. And it lacks any metric for accountability, failing to describe how the state will measure how well the actions it’s taking are preparing students for college or careers.

Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus says PED has made strides in hiring 300 teachers to fill vacancies and will address oversight in its final Yazzie-Martinez action plan.

That is overdue, because it makes zero sense to keep allocating money we can’t spend and spending money with no plan to ensure it actually helps students. As Diehl told the Legislative Education Study Committee, “without clearly articulated goals of what the state is trying to achieve that are aligned with the findings in this case … New Mexico … will continue to see a disconnect between appropriated funding and improved student outcomes.”

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said this week each of the last three years has been a record-breaker for permanent fund revenue. The land grant and severance tax permanent funds will deliver a record $1.3 billion for state spending next fiscal year. The land grant fund is at $25.8 billion, and continuing to grow that corpus means the annual 5% distribution to schools grows as well.

Before voting “yes” on Amendment 1, voters need to ask if they are getting value for the billions being spent, why hundreds of millions are not being spent, and how adding another $211 million a year to the pile will help our children.

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.

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