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NM must boost investment in education

New Mexico’s public schools are in jeopardy. Yet some would have us believe that the education system is well funded – awash in cash like it has never seen before.

If it sounds unbelievable, it is.

When accounting for inflation and student enrollment, per-pupil funding is just as low now as seven years ago. The public school system is still over $330 million short of recommended levels determined in a landmark study commissioned by the Legislature in 2008.

Meanwhile, to address under-funding, laws have been passed to allow schools to decrease the number of hours children attend. Some districts open their schools only four days a week. Due to severe shortages this year, the Santa Fe School District is seeking emergency funds and Albuquerque has been forced to make cuts.

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New Mexico’s teachers are already some of the lowest paid in the country and yet they reach into their pockets to help students with basic needs when families cannot afford shoes or clothing. Students routinely go without supplies and share textbooks in overcrowded classrooms.

State Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Albuquerque, wrote an article earlier this year taking aim at student fees required for classwork because public education is supposed to be free. Face it. New Mexico’s schools need more money.

What we do not need is more wishful thinking that our schools can just somehow shift existing resources or penalize students and teachers, and still see a major turnaround in achievement. New Mexico’s per-pupil spending is below the national average and at levels woefully insufficient to meet the circumstances of our student population. Hence our low educational outcomes – some of the lowest reading and math proficiency rates in the country.

The vast majority of children in New Mexico are living in poverty or low-income households. The state ranks 49th in the country for child poverty and has the third-highest percent of English language learners. Yet, while other states are devoting up to 50 percent more money for each at-risk student, New Mexico provides only 10 percent additional funds and overall directs only three percent of operational funds to low-income and English language learner students.

It is not uncommon for school districts to cut programs and services, or to rely on donations and volunteers in order to meet the basic needs of their students.

However, there are ways to expand opportunities for at-risk students that are proven to dramatically improve outcomes. These include quality early childhood education, evidence-based literacy programs, bilingual and multicultural education, teacher training and retention strategies, college readiness programs, extended learning opportunities such as summer school, more school days and after-school tutoring, and other support services and staffing. While some of these initiatives are gaining a foothold, they are either underfunded or insufficiently provided throughout New Mexico.

It takes money to provide a quality education to all of our children. Even when the state’s budget has grown by nearly $1 billion since 2010, the percent of the budget spent on public education remains flat. Our state constitution demands better and requires a uniform system of free public schools sufficient for the education of all schoolchildren.

Currently, two major lawsuits are pending against the state for violating this provision, brought by families and districts from across New Mexico. The cases have been consolidated and are set for trial next year.

No family or business wants to be in a community where schools lack resources and students are struggling to read, much less graduate. Our education system is the foundation for employment, which in turn helps the economy and builds the state’s capacity to educate its future generations. In other words, a good education will pay for itself.

If we believe it’s too costly or hard to implement change, mediocrity will reign. But if we believe every child deserves a shot at success, no matter the disadvantages they face, then the path is clear – New Mexico must act to make a more powerful investment in education.

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