Yazzie Attorney: Education Funding Still Too Scarce
The New Mexico legislature this spring passed increases in education funding, in response to a judge’s order saying the state has violated the constitutional rights of at-risk students. Last week, attorneys for the plaintiffs filed a notice with the court saying the state has not done nearly enough.
Lauren Winkler, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, co-wrote the court filing that concludes that districts "are left in the continued position of not being able to provide their students with a sufficient education."
WINKLER: What we saw happen with the 23 focus districts in the case, or at least most of them, was that after they got the money from the legislature and they did their mandated teacher salaries, there really wasn’t much left over to do any additional programs or services for at-risk students. So what happened was districts would do the mandated six percent increase, but they would also have to bump up some teachers to a different level, because the tier levels went up. Tier 1 went up to $40,000, Tier 2 to $50,000 and Tier 3 to $60,000. So with both of those increases, districts also had to be sure they were being fair across the board to all their employees, so they were raising salaries to create parity. After they did that, there was nothing left to expand programs and services for at-risk students.
KUNM: Teachers can vote; kids can’t. Was this a political move by lawmakers and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to mandate the salary increase but not to as strongly mandate other services that would directly help at-risk students?
WINKLER: I think the governor and the PED want what’s best for our kids. That’s evident with her track record, and she’s appointed a really strong PED. There’s really strong leadership there. With the teacher salary increases, those were much needed. I mean, it’s been years since teachers had an increase in salary in New Mexico, but the legislature really didn’t do enough outside of that to ensure students have access to programs and services.
KUNM: Your notice to the court says the Cuba school district received $140,000 in state bilingual funds – and it said that’s about half of what’s needed to cover bilingual teacher salaries and things like materials in Spanish and Navajo. How can the state get a more accurate sense of how much remedies like that actually cost, to fund them properly?
WINKLER: I think what was evident from this past session is that the legislature didn’t talk to districts to ensure that the amount they appropriated were actually going to cover the increases. And it’s kind of a similar thing with the bilingual appropriation. So doing some more work directly with districts may help. I think there sometimes is a disconnect between education policy at the legislature, and what is actually happening on the ground with districts. The budget has been developed before the education policy has been developed, and that leaves gaps in funding, or it leaves us in a situation with districts being in the red and actually having to cut programs for their kids.
KUNM: Judge Sarah Singleton made the original ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez [v. State of New Mexico] case, and in it she pointed out multiple areas where the state Public Education Department fails to hold districts accountable for providing programs for at-risk students. How can the state do better at making sure that money is getting to the students who need it most?
WINKLER: I think from the evidence from trial, and from the judge’s order in the findings and conclusions, it was clear PED wasn’t really monitoring that at-risk funding to ensure students were getting opportunities, programs and services from that funding in their district. I think PED has a plan to do that. It’s happened in the past. In past administrations, the PED has found ways to effectively monitor at-risk funding. It can be done, it’s just a matter of, you know, doing it.
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