January 27, 2020

Policymakers say education overhaul will take years

As Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham enters the second year of an education overhaul she promised on the campaign trail — and a state judge mandated months before she took office — she and other policymakers say the changes will come over decades, not within legislative sessions.

They point to persistent problems, such as low rates of student proficiency in math and reading and high numbers of high school dropouts, and say solutions will require years of steadily increasing investments in building an education workforce that suffers from a severe shortage.

They say initiating programs to aid the state’s most vulnerable kids and extending classroom time — both expensive propositions — are a start, but add the effort requires New Mexico to rethink how it views education funding.

“People say we just throw money at it, but we haven’t ever tried throwing money at it,” said state Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who serves on the Senate Education Committee. “We’ve done nothing but underfund for years. It’s about time we threw some money at this.”

A year ago, Lujan Grisham and the Legislature were under a judge’s order in a years-long civil suit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, to address a long-standing issue: providing too few resources to educate kids from low-income families, special-education students, Native American children and English-language learners.

Armed with a windfall of new oil and gas money, the state approved a $480 million surge for public schools, in part to comply with the judge’s order. Lujan Grisham and the Legislature are proposing another increase this year of more than $200 million.

Some critics have said that’s not enough.

At the same time, some lawmakers already have grown weary of the court order for heavier investments in education.

“Judges shouldn’t be legislating from the bench, and I think that’s what has happened here,” Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said at a legislative hearing last month. “I think we’ve focused too much only on satisfying the Martinez-Yazzie lawsuit.”

Stewart said not all legislators understand “what we’re up against and how long it’s going to take to turn kids around.”

Sen. Bill Soules, a Las Cruces Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee and teaches a pair of Advanced Placement Psychology classes at Oñate High School, expressed similar frustration.

“People need to realize we didn’t get to the bottom in one year. This is years and years of digging ourselves into a hole,” he said.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said Lujan Grisham also believes it will take time to see significant results from reforms and increased investments.

In an email, Stelnicki wrote, “When we talk about the ‘moonshot’ ” — a word the governor used frequently last year in reference to a surge in education funding — “we’re talking about the genuine transformation of our cradle-to-career public education system. And that does take time. We have to stay the course.”

Soules, and a handful of other educators-turned-Legislators, say change begins with attracting more teachers — and keeping them in classrooms. In fall 2019, the state had 644 vacancies for full-time public school teachers, according to a report from New Mexico State University; that was down from 740 in fall 2018.

The report also found New Mexico schools fall short by 400 educational assistants, counselors, psychologists and other professionals who largely help support students deemed at risk of failing or dropping out.

School district officials and some legislators call the workforce shortage a crisis. Teacher vacancies are filled with long-term substitutes, who aren’t required to have a teaching license.

“When people say we should put money into students who are at-risk, I say there are no students more at-risk than those without a qualified teacher in their classroom,” Stewart said.

One effort to draw teachers is a rise in the pay scale. Last year, Lujan Grisham and the Legislature approved 6 percent raises for teachers. Spending proposals for the next fiscal year include additional raises — 6 percent in the governor’s plan and 4 percent in the Legislature’s.

A bill introduced in the current legislative session would create a pilot mentorship program connecting first-year teachers with experienced educators, with a goal of keeping more young teachers in the field longer.

Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said she thinks the proposed pay hikes are too low.

“We have a teacher shortage crisis,” she said. “Our salaries aren’t competitive, and whatever in-state pipeline we might have had dried up over the past decade.”

García said she has been advertising the district’s open teaching positions in seven states, Puerto Rico and Spain, and she has called retirees in hopes of enticing them back into the classroom.

While New Mexico teachers have seen pay raises in recent years, they’re still not on par with educators in other states. According to the latest data from the National Education Association, New Mexico ranked 48th in the nation for teacher pay in 2017-18, with an average salary of $47,152. The national average was $60,477.

The state’s overall spending on education is nearly 20 percent below the national average, according to a report by Education Week.

Bill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center, based in Boulder, Colo., and a former school superintendent in Vermont, predicted it will take years of large investments for New Mexico to catch up.

He pointed to a new report by the Vermont legislature that recommended districts spend 300 percent more on students living in poverty than their wealthier peers and 150 percent more on English-language learners — two of the groups of students cited in New Mexico’s Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit as underserved.

It’s difficult to estimate a time frame for when districts would see the results of a funding surge, Mathis said, and he called it a “fallacy” to try to connect funding levels with education outcomes.

“You’re going to see returns in less crime and more people in well-paying jobs, but tying money directly to academic achievement is virtually impossible,” he said.

To help narrow an achievement gap for low-income kids, Lujan Grisham has pushed to extend the school year — another initiative that requires more funding.

Last summer, the state spent $29 million on a 25-day summer program that served 18,000 low-income students in grades K-5. The Public Education Department is requesting $68.4 million to offer the program, K-5 Plus, to 50,000 students this summer.

The department also wants to double its funding for a program that offers 10 days of extra classroom time, to $95.6 million in 2020-21 from $42.3 million this year. With the increase, the initiative would reach more than half of the state’s 330,000 students.

García said she sees K-5 Plus and extended learning time as steps toward a year-round school calendar — an idea she supports.

But state Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, who co-founded an early childhood education center in Sierra County, cautioned against a universal extension.

“There will never be enough money,” she said.

“With limited resources, we have to be targeted and strategic,” Dow added. “… We can’t just add days to the school calendar and expect that to work for every district.”