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 V.15 No.49 | December 7 - 13, 2006 

Ortiz y Pino

The Cellar Door

New Mexico's lack of education

Kay Monaco spent the past nine years conscientiously documenting New Mexico’s numerous failings.

Last week, Monaco used her final appearance before an interim Legislative Committee to spotlight her views on why we consistently wind up in the cellar when all 50 states are compared on measures of well-being.

And while you might not think there would be much left to tell after that decade of scrutiny and analysis, her testimony made many of those present sit up and pay attention.

She is retiring in January as director of New Mexico Voices for Children, perhaps the pre-eminent child advocacy organization in our state. The organization publishes an annual snapshot of how kids and their families are doing, the Kids Count Data Book, and during Monaco’s tenure they have regularly increased publication of white papers on selected topics.

Their studies about why so many New Mexico kids go without insurance; how minority children in our state are particularly at risk; how our version of unemployment insurance has built up an unused balance in excess of $500 million, the largest such reserve among all states in the country, and how undocumented workers actually pay more in taxes than they cost taxpayers in health, education and social services, have, to note just a few recent examples, all contributed significantly to our understanding of what is going on here.

So when Kay Monaco speaks, the legislators (most of them) listen. Of course, they don’t always respond to what she’s explained, but they do usually listen. And, over time, not a few lessons have eventually sunk in and led to policy shifts for all of our benefit.

One shining instance is the rapid improvement that’s been made in our childhood vaccination program. Just recently this was but one bullet point in the lengthy list of performance measures where we lagged behind the rest of the nation.

No longer. Real strides have been made and New Mexico has moved into the ranks of high performers—in this one regard. Still, if one index can make a clear-cut improvement, it offers hope that the same type of attention and effort could produce similar gains in other areas.

“I’m tired,” Monaco complained to the committee, “of our constantly being the poorest state in the country. Even this year, when we moved ‘up’ to 48th, it turned out that we passed Louisiana and Mississippi mostly because Hurricane Katrina hurt them, not that we improved very much.”

She then went on to detail just how much work remains if we are to ever clamber out of the national poverty cellar. Her litany of our deficits was painful to hear. It was also alarming. And it left her audience sobered. The picture is stark, with one number recurring like a drumbeat:

Fifty percent of our workforce in New Mexico is functionally illiterate.

Fifty percent of our high school freshmen are never going to graduate.

Fifty percent of New Mexico high school graduates need remedial course work in math or English before they can take college courses for credit.

Fifty percent of registered voters bothered to vote last month … and less than 50 percent of all eligible citizens bothered to register.

This is not the profile of a dynamic state with a workforce poised to take advantage of the many opportunities the global economy affords. It is not a competitive workforce. It is an anchor and chain impeding the progress of even our best-planned economic development ventures.

We will not make any headway in ending poverty until we educate our workforce … and we’re not even talking college coursework, simply basic language and numeric skills. But Monaco noted that we spend scarcely $385 per enrolled student in Adult Basic Education classes statewide … and a tiny fraction of those who need ABE are actually being served, usually through classes at community colleges.

Even as we’ve concentrated on beefing up state spending on K-12 and higher education, we’ve missed the opportunity to similarly accelerate our efforts for the workforce that’s already out there on the job. That means, simply, we are slipping farther behind every day.

There are, of course, other sinister consequences to our having such an ill-prepared workforce. Since non-high school graduates are at least five times more likely to wind up in jail than graduates, we can explain this state’s burgeoning prison population (and attendant spiraling corrections budget) at a time when many other states are seeing a decline in those numbers and costs, largely by the failure of our current efforts to adequately educate our young men and women.

Similarly, our high rates of substance abuse, DWI, domestic violence and even single motherhood can all be statistically linked to poor educational attainment. Ditto for the cost to society of trying to remediate those problems.

Monaco wasn’t trying to point fingers or fix blame. Rather her point was we are spinning our wheels in economic development efforts until we get realistic about rolling up our sleeves and providing New Mexico’s citizens with the tools the economy of 2010 demands. And $385 per adult learner just doesn't cut it.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jerry@alibi.com.

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