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Overspending for education should end now

Cost-benefit: What kind of bang for the buck do we get from public education in comparison with other states?

The state with the lowest overall cost per student is Utah, at $6,500. Nevertheless, Utah ranks 13th in K-12 student achievement, according to Education Week.

Where does New Mexico, which spends $9,734, fully $3,234 more per pupil, rank in student achievement? You guessed it, 49th!

What about Arizona, which spends $2,206 less per pupil than New Mexico? Arizona ranks 25th in K-12 achievement, way ahead of New Mexico.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

There are many other states that beat out New Mexico in student achievement while spending a lot less per pupil. Putting it differently, if New Mexico spent as little per pupil as Utah, we would save $1.1 billion dollars per year!

Bloated bureaucracy: The proportion of costs going to administration in New Mexico schools is the highest among all states.

Administration costs gobble up fully $1,274 per pupil each year on administration – 13 percent of our per-pupil costs of $9,734 in fiscal year 2015. This compares with administrative costs of only $400 per pupil in Utah (6 percent of per-pupil costs of $6,500), $348 per pupil in Arizona, $629 per pupil in Colorado and $485 per pupil in Texas.

Not a single one of our neighboring states spends even half of what we spend per pupil on administrative costs!

If we were to cut administrative costs in half, to $637 per pupil, still higher than any of our neighboring states, we would save $215 million per year. This would make a substantial contribution to filling in the current 2017 budget shortfall. And does anyone really believe cutting administrative costs down to normal in New Mexico would hurt our already dismal student achievement? Might even help!

If we were to take half of that $215 million saved and invest it, say, in higher salaries for teachers, our average teacher pay would go up from $45,453 to $50,285, moving New Mexico up from 47th to around 25th in the nation, slightly higher than the average salaries for teachers in our surrounding states.

That would make it easier to attract better teachers, and better students into becoming teachers, and still leave more than $100 million to cut into the shortfall. Does the Legislature have the political will to cut this fat, or other fat, out of the education budget?

In higher education we see the same pattern of high cost, low return.

In spite of lower faculty salaries, New Mexico appropriates fully $1,833 more per full-time student than the national average, placing us in sixth place among all states. Only Wyoming allocates a higher proportion of its budget to higher education.

Moreover, partly because of steep tuition costs, in the past five years total higher educational revenues per FTE in New Mexico have increased 24.9 percent, surpassed only by Illinois and Oregon.

In spite of this lavish spending, New Mexico ranks 47th among the states in the six-year graduation rate for a Bachelor of Arts degree. And from 1990 to 2010 every state improved more than New Mexico in the proportion of its population holding a B.A. or better.

Today, for the first time in New Mexico history, the older generation is better educated than younger generations.

If we were to reduce higher education revenues per FTE down to the national average, still way above our neighbors Arizona, Colorado and Utah, it would save New Mexico over $176 million per year.

Add that to the $100 million left over after giving teachers a raise, and you get $279 million, which goes a long ways toward filling in the shortfall.

Putting a serious brake on the escalation of management salaries would help too.

There is nothing partisan about cutting fat out of the budget. In a state doing as poorly as New Mexico in the past few years, it only makes sense to use this downturn as an opportunity to create greater efficiency in the taxpayer dollars now lavishly doled out to public and higher education systems that are at the bottom of the barrel among states.

Jose Z. Garcia was secretary of the Higher Education Department from 2011-2014.


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