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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.

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For a multitude of reasons, New Mexico schools are consistently ranked as some of the worst in the nation. First and foremost it’s been an underfunded system, expected to cross a chasm of cultural issues such as low student performance, poverty and inaccessibility in our most rural areas and urban neighborhoods. Sounds rough, right? This was the state of public education in New Mexico in the best of times.

And then COVID hit. Most of New Mexico’s students haven’t returned to school since March of 2020. The virus ravaged our already ragged school system. The inequities of accessibility to basic services such as internet, or even a place to attempt distance learning, became a glaring problem that couldn’t be ignored.

N.M. ranks 50th on the Chance-for-Success Index, which measures a range of academic and socioeconomic factors, getting a D+ grade where the average state grade was a C+. In the 2020 report, New Mexico ranks in last place. The state received a D+ grade, the only state to get so low a mark for the 2020 report.

While investing a large chunk of money into fixing the state’s public education problem is certainly needed, throwing money at the problem won’t fix it. Systemic child poverty, parental education, access to healthcare and educational support outside of the classroom are problems that still exist.

Shooting For the Moon

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and her team have added new programs and systems in an attempt to fix the problems caused by over a decade of an ineffective public school system. This year the governor has allocated almost half of the state’s proposed budget for FY22 for public education. It’s an increase of 4 percent from last year and a bold move, one that the governor calls a “moonshot.”

In the governor’s FY22 budget outline, the governor is requesting $151 million to expand four key “moonshot” programs: K-5 Plus, Extended Learning Time, Career Technical Education and Community Schools. “We want more schools, more districts and more students to opt-in to programs designed to extend instructional time, and those that do will be eligible for additional resources for Career Technical Education and Community Schools,” Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said.

To address the need to funnel dollars into low-income districts, Lujan Grisham wants to send additional resources to the schools and districts with the greatest proportion of low-income students. Currently, state funding is often reduced when districts also receive federal aid money. (Often this translates into districts with Native American students.) If approved, the new provision will cost $6.2 million. Additionally, the budget proposes a new “Family Income Index,” an $80 million proposal to recalculate the state school funding formula based on tax information, which would give more money to schools with the highest percentages of low-income students.

In 2020 the governor and the legislature approved the Early Childhood Education and Care Trust Fund to pay for expanded services for the state’s youngest residents. This helped provide state-funded early pre-K and pre-K. The move seems to have worked, as the state is now 38th in the country for preschool enrollment according to the Chance-for-Success Index 2020 report. The fund was set up so that the state’s oil and gas revenue surplus would flow into it each year; and luckily for us, oil and gas gave the state $2.8 billion in revenues, despite the pandemic. This year legislators are hoping for an even bigger piece of the oil fund to flow into the program.

If this year’s legislature approves the governor’s budget for public education, a system of accountability would be needed for the Public Education Department. The 2020 Legislative Finance Committee appropriated over $54 million to address the inequality issues raised in the Yazzie/Martinez court mandate. But the Public Education Department gave two thirds of the money back to the state. The governor is asking for an additional $8 million for the Public Education Department to administer the funds and ensure they comply with the courts and don’t give the money back.

To address the need for equitable digital assets for all students, both in rural and urban areas, Lujan Grisham is asking for $10 million to provide digital devices and extend internet connectivity to remote parts of New Mexico if online-only school continues.

Democratic legislators have also released their list of priorities for the session. One of the top priorities is getting kids off remote learning and back in school.

Voice of the Educator

Amid all of the national studies, economists and advisors, the voices of New Mexico’s educators are often unheard. Although Lujan Grisham gave a much-needed raise to New Mexico teachers her first year in office, our state’s beleaguered teachers are being run into the ground. “I’m glad that our elected officials are seeing that our education system needs more money,” said Meghan Smith, an elementary teacher at Double Eagle Elementary in Albuquerque. “But throwing money at our schools isn’t going to fix the system if we don’t have the support, staff and training we need.”

Smith is a 20-year veteran of New Mexico’s public school system, having worked in both Rio Rancho and Albuquerque Public School districts. “When Martinez was governor, they promised to trim the fat at the top, and instead they just cut teachers and teacher’s assistants. We’ve never recovered from that, and now we’re expected to do more than ever, with less staff and less training,” she said. Smith says until teachers are given the support they require to address the needs of their students, the broken system will remain in pieces.

There is no magic wand to fix our state’s problematic public education system. Past administrations have tried and failed to pull us out of the bottom of the barrel. Infusing money into programs that address systemic problems in our state is a start, but by no means the only solution. Let’s see if legislators and the Public Education Department realize that as well.

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