Education groups race for taste of state revenue surplus

September 16, 2018

Education’s perfect storm came during the easy, breezy days of summer.

In July, a state District Court judge ordered lawmakers to create a plan that would provide more financial resources for New Mexico’s at-risk students. It was a landmark decision hailed by those within the public schools who claimed the state for years had robbed kids of a sufficient education with funding that was too sparse for their needs.

Only a few weeks later, the state projected it would see $1.2 billion in new revenue, an oil-and-gas windfall that many of the same advocates saw as manna from heaven — or, more tangibly, cash that could be infused into a K-12 system that languishes near or at dead last in the country.

Armed with court papers and dreams of greenbacks, the education lobby — actually, the disparate parts of it — have marched to state officials’ offices this summer, angling for a bigger slice of the pie. And they want the works: increased teacher salaries; the expansion of early childhood education programs; money to bridge achievement gaps that plague New Mexico’s minority students; more wraparound services like counseling, behavior health and social workers; and more teachers to lower student-teacher ratios.

The list goes on — and comes on top of other chronic needs, such as school safety.

But a key lawmaker says many of the requests from education are coming to the state without a real road map for success — and in some cases, without any perspective on the state’s myriad needs in areas outside education.

“I’ve had requests for certain dollar amounts but no plan — just, ‘Give me some money,’ ” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. “You can’t believe the number of people who have contacted me to help me spend money. We shouldn’t have much to do in Senate Finance this year with all that help.”

With so many hands out, Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, said he hopes the interest groups within education can come together to prioritize needs.

“That would be nice,” said Hall, a member of the House Education Committee. “But you and I know that’s not gonna happen.”

Or maybe it will.

On Friday, representatives from a number of education advocacy groups — including teachers unions, tribal leaders, educators and administrators — convened in Albuquerque for an “education transformation summit,” as one organizer put it.

Conducted away from the media, the private meeting’s goal was simple: review and approve a “remedy plan” created by some of the plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit that accused the state of providing insufficient resources for public education. Advocates say First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton’s June decision, in which she ruled lawmakers must find a way to provide more resources for the 70-plus percent of New Mexico students who are minorities, means they have momentum — and law — on their side.

“The fact that we have this court order at a time when we also have that amount of money is a great opportunity for the state to comply with the court’s order,” said Gail Evans, lead counsel for education for the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, which represents one of the plaintiffs in the court case.

The group likely will announce a final outcome Monday, Evans said, adding that it won’t put a dollar amount on the plan but will leave that task to lawmakers.

“The state needs to cost that up and then supply the appropriate funding,” she said.

But some lawmakers and even education advocates advise caution, in part because using a one-year windfall to set new funding standards or to support long-term initiatives would be risky. The boom-and-bust cycle of oil and gas revenue drained state coffers as recently as two years ago.

“We can’t commit that money to one year’s budget without knowing that money will be there the following year,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, an advisory member of the Legislative Education Study Committee.

Charles Goodmacher, a spokesman for the National Education Association of New Mexico, agreed. He said the union doesn’t want legislators to say, “Great, look, we have a one-time boost so let’s spend it on education” without coming up with a plan for a reliable funding stream if the oil and gas revenue runs dry.

Jose Armas, one of the leaders of the New Mexico Education Action Alliance, a grassroots public education advocacy group, also said the state must come up with a sustainable funding plan for any new initiatives. But the group does have a specific financial request for the Legislature, he said: Commit 55 percent of the state’s budget to public education. Right now, that amount is closer to 44 percent, about $2.8 billion out of a $6.3 billion budget for fiscal year 2019.

According to Legislative Finance Committee documents, New Mexico has spent more actual dollars on K-12 education through the School Equalization Guarantee formula for the past several years. But public schools’ actual percentage of the overall state budget has remained at 43 percent or 44 percent during that time period.

“We need more money than we have been spending,” Armas said.

One of the alliance’s main goals is to eliminate the achievement gap between Hispanic and Native American students and their Anglo counterparts — one of the reasons the public education funding lawsuit was launched back in 2014.

Other groups have different priorities. Goodmacher said the NEA would like the Legislature to raise teacher salaries under the state’s three-tier system, which is based on experience and training. Starting teachers would earn $40,000 under the NEA plan; Level 2 teachers, $50,000; and Level 3 teachers, $60,000.

Though Gov. Susana Martinez repeatedly has raised pay for starting teachers over the past few years, little effort has been made to increase pay for more experienced educators, Goodmacher said.

If those wish lists weren’t enough, more ideas are likely to bubble up — and soon.

Joe Guillen, executive director of the New Mexico School Boards Association, said Friday was the deadline for school boards across the state to submit resolutions and proposals for the group to consider as it drafts its own legislative platform.

In reviewing just a few of those items earlier this week, Guillen said it’s clear school districts “want more money” and more control over how that money is spent.

He scoffed at the notion that the various players might not be able to join in creating an education wish list.

“When there is new revenue involved, everybody wants their fair share,” he said. “I believe in the end we will come together.”

Stephanie Ly, head of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said she hopes that in addition to public education, the Legislature will use part of that $1.2 billion to bolster the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department so the agency can improve its behavioral health services for children falling through the cracks or suffering abuse.

“Ideally, we’d like all of that $1.2 billion for education and children,” Ly said.

Sen. Smith said any new initiatives would need to be phased in over time, with cautious investments and a view to “building it to capacity.”

Asked whether public education — or any other state agency — might receive all or most of the $1.2 billion, Smith laughed.

“The governor wanted to put an emphasis on making sure kids can read by the third grade,” he said. “But those types of requests make me believe that we should have had them learning arithmetic by the third grade.”

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