The state’s education budget may be among the toughest fights of this year’s New Mexico legislative session, which starts today, with opposing sides already debating who should control new school spending: Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration or the state’s 89 school districts.
Both Martinez and the state’s Legislative Finance Committee have recommended that the state’s $2.6 billion education budget be increased for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, which starts in July.
Martinez is asking for an additional $100 million in recurring spending for such items as 10 percent pay raises for entry-level teachers, with no raises for experienced teachers, and recruiting incentives for math and science teachers.
The Legislative Finance Committee has recommended that the net increase be closer to $143 million, funding raises of at least 1.5 percent for all school employees and directing more funding through the state funding formula to individual school districts.
A third budget proposal, compiled by the House Education Committee, is recommending an even larger increase of $148 million in new education spending for initiatives such as across-the-board 3 percent raises for teachers and classroom size reductions.
‘Below the line’
A focus of debate between legislative leaders and the Governor’s Office centers on what share of the new education spending falls “below the line.”
The “line” is the cutoff point above which school spending is distributed by formula directly to local school districts on a per-student basis.
Below-the-line spending is earmarked for targeted programs overseen by the state Public Education Department and awarded to select districts at the administration’s discretion.
The governor’s proposal would increase “below-the-line” spending to about $124 million, which is nearly 5 percent of her total $2.7 billion proposed education budget.
Martinez and Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera have called the emphasis on below-the-line budgeting a matter of improving accountability in the state’s education system, which is ranked among the nation’s lowest-performing.
“This isn’t about should we or shouldn’t we invest in education,” Skandera said. “It’s about, hey, when we invest, let’s expect something in return for that investment when it comes to our students and achievement.”
Some legislators counter that the increased focus on below-the-line spending fails to backfill cuts school districts suffered in recent years when state spending was broadly reduced to balance losses from the economic downturn.
Those legislators also say the governor’s below-the-line spending prevents elected school board officials from determining how new money can best be used to improve their district while accounting for a community’s unique needs.
“We have elected school boards who chose superintendents who know their districts,” said Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “If the Public Education Department and Gov. Martinez are putting the money below the line, they’re basically telling the school board, ‘We know how to spend the money better than you.'”
Martinez’s budget proposal designates $55.4 million of its new education spending for below-the-line programs ranging from merit pay for teachers and funding for programs that help parents stay informed about their children’s progress.
Bringing the total of earmarked money to $124.2 million, that would be a nearly 81 percent hike above the $68.8 million the state now spends on below-the-line programs.
The LFC proposes growing existing below-the-line programs – such as prekindergarten and intervention programs for students struggling with reading – by $16.8 million to reach a total of $85.6 million, a 24 percent increase over the current year.
By contrast, the House Education Committee budget proposal would actually cut below-the-line spending by 41 percent down to $40.8 million, shifting some of the current below-the-line earmarks back to local district control by shifting programs “above the line,” according to the committee chairwoman, Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.
The Governor’s Office has criticized the LFC budget proposal, saying that approach lacks accountability.
“With respect to accountability, the governor’s budget ensures that funding designated for struggling schools, reading interventions, the recruitment of math and science teachers, parent portals etc., must be spent on those efforts,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said, “as opposed to simply funneling the money to school district bureaucracies, where it’s virtually impossible to ensure that it gets spent on specific efforts to help our struggling students and schools.”
Administration officials note that PED earmarks represent just 4 percent of the total education budget, leaving the lion’s share of education spending available for districts to manage as they see fit.
“I look at the ratio and I say – 96 percent/4 percent – I think we’re giving a lot of flexibility to our school districts when it comes to investments,” Skandera said.
“… This is not a control issue,” she said. “It’s an issue of we want what’s best for our kids and we are not producing that across the board in our state right now.”
But critics note that the Governor’s Office proposal to designate a majority of its proposed new education spending for directed below-the-line programs suggests an intent to shift district-level management to Santa Fe.
“You make districts have to compete with each other for funding,” Stewart said. “The PED has not been fair in their allocation of (below-the-line) resources. It’s not that their ideas of where we need to focus are wrong. I agree with the focus on early literacy and reading, but if you put sufficient funding in the formula, every district will be able to focus on that reading.”
Other lawmakers have said the Governor’s Office and hard-line advocates for above-the-line spending in the Legislature will need to find some middle ground for the state budget, where education spending represents about 44 percent, to pass before the end of the 30-day regular legislative session.
“I think with education, and I’ve communicated this with superintendents and I’ve communicated it to PED, that it’s imperative that we stop the bickering back and forth and see what we can do working together,” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
“If we’re going to get something accomplished and get out of (the session) intact, it’s going to be the middle-of-the-road R’s (Republicans) and D’s (Democrats) that are going to carry that load,” Smith said.