March 5, 2019

House passes sweeping education bill, with funding boost for adult learners

State lawmakers, facing an outcry over legislation defining “school-aged” students as those under the age of 22, voted Tuesday to provide a year of funding for programs that help adults get a high school education.

The provision limiting the age of a public school student would cut off services for some older students who already have been left far behind, opponents argued, and could spell doom for schools like Gordon Bernell Charter School, which serves many students over 21 — including inmates in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat from Albuquerque and a sponsor of a broad Senate education package, Senate Bill 1, proposed keeping the student age limit in place but also setting aside a year’s worth of funds for schools hit by the change.

The age limit provision was just a piece of sweeping education measures in both the House and Senate that would expand a summer program for low-income elementary school students, steer more money to schools serving at-risk students and raise the minimum salaries for teachers and principals. Each chamber passed its version of the legislation Tuesday with bipartisan support, and sent the bill on to the other side.

Rep. G. Andrés Romero, a Democrat from Albuquerque, called House Bill 5 “a landmark piece of legislation … that provides a $450 million injection into public education, something that is definitely deserved and something that is a long time coming.”

Though neither bill includes an appropriation, sponsors made it clear the legislation is tied to funding in state budget bills making their way through the Legislature.

But concern about the fate of programs for adult students working toward high school diplomas, like those studying through Gordon Bernell, prompted a last-minute change to both bills, with lawmakers adding an infusion of cash for schools that serve older students to ensure they don’t suffer a gap in funding in the short term.

Stewart noted SB 1 substantially increases funding for adult basic education, what she called a more appropriate source of cash for such initiatives.

“We need to look at where we’re having a certain amount of bleed out of our education budget,” said Sen. John Sapien, a Democrat from Corrales, who argued the change would help ensure the state is using education funding most effectively.

But Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat from Albuquerque, said lawmakers shouldn’t change the definition of a public school student by imposing an age limit. The provision “changes a basic state policy that we’ve had” and promotes a “siloed way of thinking” about schooling, he said.

“Many of these students, if they can get that high school diploma, would be able to get jobs, raise their living standard and avoid having to get into public assistance programs,” Ortiz y Pino said. “They would in the long run save us much more money than this small amount we’re expending on them now.”

But the Senate voted down Ortiz y Pino’s proposal 23-19 and adopted Stewart’s fix.

The issue had come up Monday when Public Education Secretary Karen Trujillo faced the Senate Rules Committee for her confirmation hearing.

Trujillo told the committee she did not support efforts to cut off funding for students who are over the age of 21 and still enrolled in public schools. “It would be irresponsible to stop these supports,” she said.

Also on Monday, officials from the state Higher Education Department and Public Education Department contacted Gordon Bernell Charter School Executive Director Kimberlee Hanson to voice their support for the school.

The state agencies ensured Hanson that “‘we want to support your school, we just can’t fund it out of K-12 anymore,” the charter school leader said in an interview. “The important piece here is that the PED stepped in and HED stepped in and said, ‘We are willing to work with you.'”

Ultimately, the Senate approved SB 1 on a vote of 41-0.

The House approved its version 53-14, with a similar provision defining school-aged students.

Many House Republicans crossed party lines to join Democrats in approving the bill. But some questioned whether the extra investment in education would really make a difference in improving the state’s public education system, generally ranked among the worst in the country in most national studies on the issue.

Staff reporter Dillon Mullan contributed to this report.