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How education funding could change in New Mexico

January 20, 2021 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Legislature is expected to increase near-term education funding and pursue long-term reforms that will change how schools are funded.

Education accounts for about half of the approximately $7 billion in general funds that lawmakers will haggle over during the 60-day legislative session that started Tuesday.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislative researchers have recommended increases in education funding to overcome learning losses and enrollment declines caused by the pandemic.

Lawsuits targeting the state’s school funding formula also are creating legal pressure for spending increases.

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Democratic majority leaders in the House and Senate say emergency funds are needed to pay for personal protective equipment and vaccine distribution. Teachers across the state started receiving vaccines this month.

It is unclear if legislators on either side of the aisle will use the power of the purse to pressure the governor to allow schools to open more quickly.

A coalition of school districts has sued, saying they have the authority to regulate reopenings, while child care has been a headache throughout the year for parents trying to work.

With the vast majority of students learning remotely since March, the pandemic has laid bare longstanding inequalities in education funding that could lead to long-term changes that start with this legislative session.

Recent polling by education advocates has bolstered confidence by Democratic lawmakers that the public is more supportive of major funding overhauls, like increasing withdrawals from the state’s $20 billion endowment.

A proposed resolution that calls for amending the state constitution to allow for a 1% increase in distributions from the fund could mean millions more in education funding every year. The measure has been introduced regularly over the past decade but has repeatedly failed to gain enough support.

If passed this time, it would be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.

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Legislators are also expected to rework education funding to address state and federal lawsuits.

For decades the state has taken up to 75% of the federal “Impact Aid” sent to school districts with large tracts of federal land like Native American lands and military bases.

After pressure from lawmakers and an unfavorable ruling in federal court last year, the Lujan Grisham administration has endorsed changes to practice, known as the Impact Aid credit.

As in previous years, the Legislature has embraced targeted increases in funding for low-income, tribal, and English-language-learning students. Outlined in the ongoing lawsuit, the needs are likely to drive the conversation in the 2021 session for how to fix disparate outcomes in education.

The focus on education will likely bleed into related areas, such as the rural state’s straggling broadband internet infrastructure. The lack of adequate access and bandwidth has been exacerbated by the demands of remote learning.

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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 under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.