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Editorial: So money can’t buy you student achievement

Here’s a vital question for every candidate this election season who says New Mexico must increase education spending as the first, best and only way to raise dismal achievement and graduation rates:

Are you aware just how much we are spending now to get results that rank near the bottom nationally?

New Mexico already spends more than 30 other states on K-12 education – $11,019 per student compared to the national average of $10,938, according to the National Education Association, one of the nation’s largest teacher’s unions. And what it has gotten to date is a public school system perennially near last place, that fails to ensure more than half of its students can read or do math at grade level, and fails to graduate three out of 10 students in four years. In the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the state’s fourth-grade reading scores tied with the District of Columbia for last; its eighth-grade reading and fourth-grade math scores were third from the bottom.

Here’s another important question for those candidates: How much will be enough?

New Mexico will spend $2.56 billion on K-12 this year and $2.73 billion next year, way up from the previous high-water mark of $2.49 billion in 2008. Yet candidates and lawmakers regularly propose increasing disbursements from the state’s permanent funds for education, while students, parents, teachers, employers and taxpayers are still waiting for positive results from the last raid.

Between 2003 and 2012, New Mexico dug deeper into its permanent funds to boost K-12 spending by $75 million a year; a Legislative Finance Committee report found much of the money didn’t go to intended purposes, while millions that did improved teacher salaries but not student achievement.

Another question: Should any of the money require accountability? Because most proponents of increased spending eschew targeting it to results-driven programs and want to funnel all new money into the same vast funding formula, hoping for positive results but lacking performance measures to ensure it happens.

And one more: How will spending more on education address the standard excuses that we fare badly on national rankings because many of our students live in vast rural areas and are poor and of color?

Rep. Dennis Roch, R-Logan, superintendent of the Logan school district and a member of the House Education Committee, says, “New Mexico presents a unique challenge demographically that other states aren’t facing.” In addition to higher costs for busing students long distances, Charles Goodmacher, government relations director for NEA New Mexico, says poverty “plays out in a lot of ways. Are they fed enough. … Do they have a place in the home that’s safe and comfortable to do homework?” Roch adds many students start from behind because they have to learn English as a second language.

But even doubling school spending won’t make those students wealthy, or English language speakers, or urban dwellers. And it ignores the data that our poor students do worse than poor students in other states and our minority students do worse than students of similar race or ethnicity in other states. Even our rich, white kids do worse than rich, white kids in other states.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, is vice-chair of the Legislative Finance Committee. And while he supports next year’s spending increase, he says citing poverty as a reason to spend more on education is “sort of the standard fallback argument for people who are asking for more money. … What I have a difficult time with is we are 20th in spending and we’re still at the bottom in achievement. We have been giving (school districts) more money and you haven’t shown improvement, so why should we give you more now?”

That’s another excellent question. Someone should provide answers before the next Legislature.

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.