January 20, 2019

Lawmakers pressed to devise plan for improving public education

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State Rep. Bobby Gonzales shook his head from side to side after listening to all the suggestions about how to meet a judge’s order to provide more resources to New Mexico children who, in the court’s view, are not receiving a good public education.

“About 15 different ideas,” the Democrat from Taos said following a hearing on the topic last week in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. “Maybe we need to break it all down. Maybe we can’t do it all in one year.”

But the state doesn’t have a year, or even half a year, to comply with a mandate handed down in June by state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe. She sided with the people who sued the state on grounds that the Legislature is not allocating enough money to provide a quality education for certain groups of students: low-income children, English-language learners, Native Americans and students with disabilities.

Rather, state leaders have until April 15, about a month after this year’s 60-day legislative session ends, to prove to Singleton that they are now doing enough to provide a sufficient public education, as called for in the New Mexico Constitution.

Singleton’s decision did not include a suggested price tag, leaving it to legislators and the governor to figure out what that amount should be and what programs should be funded. It’s a mystery that those involved are trying to solve, especially after Singleton said a lack of money is no excuse for failing to provide sufficient programs for the groups of “at-risk” students she identified.

Legislators wonder what will happen if their remedy does not satisfy the judge.

Singleton isn’t saying. She told The New Mexican by email she cannot comment because the case is still pending.

Floundering without direction, legislators are considering many possibilities in hopes of complying with the judge’s order.

Expand early childhood education programs. Pay teachers more. Increase the funding formula for schools, particularly for those sets of kids highlighted in the lawsuit. Create multilingual and bilingual education programs targeted at English-language learners.

Plus, all the programs have to complement one another, said Rachel Gudgel, staff director of the Legislative Education Committee.

“We need to think about how the pieces work together rather than implementing a number of silver bullets that only address specific issues,” she said.

Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislative Finance Committee, had another warning:

“We are going to be embroiled in court about whether you did this [correctly],” he said.

Everyone involved agreed that more money will be appropriated for public education this coming year.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, proposed a budget for the fiscal year starting in July that includes about $3.3 billion for schools. Of that, $500 million would be new money.

Her plan would fund an array of programs and initiatives. They include extending a summer school program for students in some 300 struggling schools, raising all school employee salaries by at least 6 percent and doubling the number of 4-year-olds in prekindergarten programs over several years.

The Legislative Finance Committee’s budget proposal recommends an increase of $416 million in spending on public schools for a total of $3.2 billion. This would include $113 million aimed at helping the students cited in the court case.

Neither plan contains enough money, said Lauren Winkler, a lawyer for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represented some plaintiffs in the case.

“It’s great to see our state making education a priority,” she said. “But neither of the proposed budgets is sufficient to meet the minimum requirements to provide education within the state constitution. The system needs an overhaul, not a Band-Aid.”

In the legislative hearing, Gudgel and Sallee outlined what has and has not worked in the education system during the past decade or so.

At times that data appeared, on the surface, to contradict itself. For example, Sallee cited a Stanford University study showing that while New Mexico children don’t score well on tests, those students on average are still attaining the expected academic growth in grades 1-4.

He said many of those children come from backgrounds with no prekindergarten. They walk into kindergarten not knowing the letters of the alphabet. From that point, he said, it’s hard for them to catch up.

More prekindergarten programs and expanded summer school classes could help address that problem, he said. But investing a giant bucket of money into those initiatives and expecting immediate results is not realistic. Those systems need time to build capacity for teachers, students and facilities, he said.

Several lawmakers said the data presented and the challenge facing them to come up with a plan is overwhelming.

Others, like Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, put a positive spin on the fact that Democrats now control the executive and legislative branches of state government.

“I feel the clouds have parted and the sun is finally shining,” she said.

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, who is temporarily overseeing the state Public Education Department, agreed. He said he is confident they can come up with a plan that suits Singleton by mid-April.

“We’re hitting the ground running to put out ideas and work through things to find a way to meet the needs of the court,” he said. “It may not be easy, but it will be worth it.”