Education funding at risk as New Mexico Legislature meets
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — High-stakes initiatives to improve lagging public schools are on the financial chopping block in New Mexico as economic turmoil from the coronavirus undermines the state’s most significant commodity — petroleum.
Nearly half the state’s $7.6 billion annual spending plan is devoted to public schools, with a large amount of that coming from oil and gas revenues.
A $2.4 billion shortfall in income this year and next has left lawmakers with the impossible challenge of boosting teacher pay and preserving funding for landmark education efforts aimed at expanding learning opportunities for more students.
MaryBeth Weeks, a mother of seven and president of the New Mexico Parent Teacher Association, knows that school budgets flow from decisions made in Santa Fe and that New Mexico’s finances are tied closely to fickle international oil markets. She hopes the state can avoid major cuts to public education.
“I think that this is a prime example of what happens in our boom and bust,” said Weeks, whose children range in age from 6 to 20 and attend public, charter and private schools.
Balancing the demands of the state’s education system on the overall budget becomes even more difficult in lean times as lawmakers also have to choose between pulling back direct spending increases for police, roads and business incentives aimed at reducing New Mexico’s dependance on the oil industry.
Just this month, state economists lowered the forecast for average oil prices over the coming 12 months to $30 a barrel — a more than $20 drop from earlier projections.
It was easy to lobby the Legislature earlier this year when oil prices were higher, Weeks said.
It’s different now. Aside from collapsing revenues, the statehouse is closed to lobbyists, advocacy groups and the general public as a precaution against coronavirus.
The state’s ambitious investments in education approved during the regular session included a $320 million preschool endowment, 4% teacher raises, a boost in per-pupil funding, more school days and free college tuition for in-state students pursuing two-year associate degrees and certificates.
The stakes are enormous for children grappling with the COVID pandemic and endemic poverty, in a state that ranks near-last in many measures of academic achievement and childhood well-being.
Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed trimming teacher raises to 2%. Leading legislators are considering an average pay bump of less than 1%.
Landmark education reforms aimed at extending the school calendar by up to five weeks have been canceled or scaled back for the summer, saving the state $40 million on a program called K-5 Plus. That may deprive some teachers of additional work and pay equal to 19% of standard salaries.
Proposed budget provisions would provide an option for adding school days during the upcoming year to make up for lost classroom time during the pandemic, said Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislature’s budget and accountability office. Schools closed in mid-March and never reopened.
There also are lingering frustrations among some parents and school districts who sued over allegations that the state has failed to provide adequate educational opportunities to New Mexico students, especially those from poor and minority homes. A state district judge in 2019 ordered the state to bolster resources for the struggling public school system.
Lujan Grisham wants the case dismissed, pointing to her administration’s efforts to reform the system. But plaintiffs want greater court oversight of education resources.
House GOP Minority Leader James Townsend worries that a large portion of spending on public education has been devoted to teacher salaries without addressing the fundamental grievances about academic opportunities that were the focus of the lawsuit.
The court will consider the governor’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit at a June 29 hearing. Education budgets have been central to the court’s rulings in the past, and it could take away authority away from the Legislature.
First-grade teacher, legislative candidate and union activist Billie Thurman-Helean of Rio Rancho agrees with Lujan Grisham’s plan to lower teacher raises, saying it will still provide enough to cover rising health insurance premiums.
“This is an unprecedented situation, and unfortunately that may mean that we have to make certain cuts in education,” said Thurman-Helean, a Democrat who is looking to unseat a Republican incumbent during the November general election.
Other solvency proposals from lawmakers would downsize state spending to offset college tuition and cut $20 million from a new trust for early childhood education.
Overall education spending would still increase as the state taps its emergency financial reserves and federal rescue act money, under proposals from the governor and leading legislators.
Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.