Three years ago, the bottom line of the Kids Count Data Book survey from the Annie E. Casey Foundation for New Mexico was this: If your parents don’t work and you can’t read or do math at grade level, the future is dim indeed.
Three years later many of New Mexico’s kids are facing a future darker than ever, ranking worse than ever – 50th – on education and child poverty compared to the rest of the nation.
Yet spending here is up on education, and the state’s premier social welfare program has been expanded – the K-12 budget has gone from $2.2 billion in 2009 to $2.75 billion in 2016; 35,000 more children are signed up for Medicaid.
So it would seem that until New Mexico’s legislators get serious about changing the entrenched systems that fail to educate kids or promote job growth, our children’s well being has little chance of dramatically improving.
The vast majority of New Mexicans know this. Last year a Journal Poll found two-thirds of New Mexico voters – 67 percent – supported a state law “that would require public schools to hold back third-graders from advancing to the fourth grade if they do not have adequate reading skills.”
And yet some of New Mexico’s Democratic lawmakers continue to block meaningful education and economic reforms. One of their proposed solutions, as always, is more money via a raid on the Land Grant Permanent Fund to throw additional millions at vague “high-quality early childhood programs” even as they refuse to consider ending the self-fulfilling poverty prophecy of social promotion. Never mind that the fund produces income that pays for about 10 percent of the state’s ongoing annual expenses. Never mind that one leading Democrat says he isn’t sure we could effectively spend that additional money.
An earlier raid depleted the Land Grant fund corpus by $647 million in 10 years. And what was the result? The Legislative Finance Committee reported much of that money didn’t go to intended purposes, and the millions that did go to pay higher teacher salaries were a poor investment if the goal was improved student achievement. It should be noted that then-Gov. Bill Richardson, who pushed many of the changes that are targets of his party today, argued that was the goal. The Journal supported the amendment to go into the permanent fund.
While the state has accomplished some tax reform to encourage growth in the private sector, lawmakers have been so focused on expanding programs for the sick, disabled and poor that nonprofits have generated more jobs here than the oil and gas industry, construction, manufacturing and financial activities.
For that child hoping Mommy and/or Daddy will be able to finally get a job that pays the bills and brings stability to their home, the 2016 Kids Count report shows virtually no change since 2012 – more than a third, 36 percent, of parents do not have secure employment here.
Meanwhile, our consistent problems of teen pregnancy and single-parent households continue to drag us down, and some of the safety-net programs actually discourage work or getting a better job because the person who does loses benefits.
As the 2016 race for legislative seats heats up, New Mexico voters will undoubtedly be treated to more talking points from candidates vowing to do things for “our children.” But voters need to ask candidates for specifics on what they will do to get more children’s parents gainfully employed as well as more children literate.
The feel-good move of throwing more money at the problems, while pushing along kids doomed to fail rather than threaten their self-esteem, hasn’t moved the needle yet.
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.