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Editorial: Class size has a place in NM school reforms

Since at least 2005, the New Mexico Legislature has approved waivers to the limits on public school class sizes that are mandated in state statute. In fact, because the law only allows the waivers for two years running, lawmakers have actually granted routine waivers of the waiver rules.

So who knew just $20 million – 0.8 percent of the state’s $2.6 billion in K-12 spending – could get the state’s school districts to finally comply with the law?

Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the House Education Committee, says that’s all it will take to ensure there are just 20 children in kindergarten classes, 22 to 24 in elementary school classes and 27 to 30 in middle and high school classes. And so she’s earmarked $20 million in “above the line” spending to return to statutory class caps.

There are skeptics who have legitimate concerns that $20 million isn’t enough. But Stewart’s assurance comes from her position as Education chair as well as a longtime employee of the state’s largest school district. That should comfort fellow lawmakers who will want to hold districts accountable on getting this done if the funding is approved.

It would be better – make that more accountable – to put the money “below the line,” where just 4 percent of K-12 funding is targeted to specific programs and reforms, instead of dumping it into the state’s school funding formula. That way, the money would have to go toward its intended purpose.

But there’s no question that parents, teachers and principals would embrace smaller class sizes as a means to improving student achievement – especially if it’s fiscally achievable. It’s one of the basic draws of charter schools and why parents vote with their feet.

So it’s vital Stewart’s funding be used as advertised: to comply with class size law.

With that caveat, the governor and Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera should support this modest additional legislative appropriation while maintaining their focus on increasing teacher effectiveness, early childhood education, third-grade literacy, student proficiency and graduation rates. The PED has said it is open to discussions with the Legislature on class size.

There’s no single solution to the state’s serious education challenges – around half of New Mexico students are not proficient in reading and math, three out of 10 don’t graduate in four years, and half of those that go to college need remedial coursework. As a package, these reforms promise to continue improving public education in the state, and each supports the Public Education Department’s goal of creating “a better environment for our teachers and school leaders.”

To that end, the $20 million should not gut funding for reforms that directly affect classrooms. With projected new revenue in the coming fiscal year, and three proposals to increase education spending (Martinez by $100 million, the Legislative Finance Committee by $143 million, the House Education Committee by $148 million), there should be enough money to comply with the law and get updated textbooks in classrooms.

It’s also important to recognize that respecting the law fulfills a legislative responsibility – unlike ignoring it and trying to dump the class-size issue on voters via a constitutional amendment. The state Constitution should remain a broad document guiding governance and not be turned into a detail-oriented micromanaging laundry list. In addition, the proposed amendment would reduce mandatory class sizes beyond even the current law and cost an estimated $204 million a year for infrastructure and $63 million annually for operations.

New Mexico’s teachers, parents, taxpayers and especially its students would be better served by the state finally complying with the class-size law that’s already on the books while instituting other classroom-centric reforms.

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.