Fact: The Public Education Department in the state of New Mexico has been consistently ranked as one of the most troubled in the nation. A poorly designed, under-funded system—in conjunction with unacceptably low student performance and outcomes—can be traced to other, more troublesome cultural problems such as endemic poverty and addiction as well as crime and violence of all sorts.
It’s no longer a matter of debating which came first. It is clear that—in order to build a sustainable economy powered by educated, healthy, responsible and prosperous New Mexicans—the Democratic leadership of this state, elected resoundingly after eight years of Republican failure in state governance, must take an active role in advocating, supporting and, most importantly, funding public education in The Land of Enchantment.
At the last two sessions of New Mexico’s 54th Legislature, the 60-day session of 2019 and the 30-day 2020 session that just ended, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and her team went to work to both ameliorate the problems caused by an ineffective public school system, as well as to institute broad changes that would not only restore funding to the system but also engender changes that would grow the system for the benefit of our state’s children. This year they were solidly backed by both the New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives.
This brief article takes a look at the history of public education in New Mexico, our state’s long place at the bottom, the cultural crises such placement portends and how the vision of the current governor is working to correct years of neglect and the violation of civil rights while helping to lift up demoralized teachers, administrators and students while improvement is undertaken as a serious strategy.
This piece also examines the places where the money to fix education in New Mexico comes from, the booming oil and gas industries happening in two corners of this very large state. That’s a place that some have come to question even as this state moves in a progressive fashion away from the unsustainable into the survivable, and perhaps in the foreseeable future, to a place where good jobs and an enviable energy policy are balanced against top-performing students in up-to-date educational establishments scattered across The Land of Enchantment.
For many in state government, the advances made this year herald a true sea change. Yet for others, nagging questions about how to sustain funding and how to provide other necessary services to help raise up a veritably poor, disenfranchised and uneducated population remain.
Last year, just after the traditional public school academic year ended in May of 2019, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable institution tasked with improving educational outcomes for children in the United States, published their annual Kids Count Data Book. This published research reflects on 16 child well-being indicators. Those indicators are then grouped into four larger units called domains that include economic well-being, education and health as well as family and community.
New Mexico ranked number 50 (out of 50 states) in two out of four of those large data groups, including in data gleaned in the areas of family and community and education. The Land of Enchantment came in 49th in terms of economic security and also ranked 48th in terms of the overall health of our children.
Although the report did note some improvement (the child poverty rate in the state has declined by 3 percentage points over the past year and the teen birth rate has dropped to nearly half of what was reported on in 2012) it also sent a shock wave through the educational establishment in the state, spurring some legislators to get an early start on formulating legislation to combat an obviously threatening trend.
For many in leadership positions throughout the state, it clearly seemed that the second session of the 54th New Mexico Legislature would be the prime place to begin correcting the situation for children and education in the state of New Mexico.
Before this year’s session commenced, the Office of the Governor of the State of New Mexico issued an annual budget proposal that called for increased attention to and funding for public education.
Lujan Grisham’s proposal outlined her battle to bring education back into focus. A preface at the top of the web page where the document was released notes that, “Education represents almost 50 percent of new spending, including another round of raises for educators and school personnel.”
Broken down into numbers by her teams of ace economists and public information officers, Lujan Grisham’s $7.68 billion budget contained the following funding requests for our public schools, officially summarized by the state as follows:
• A $74 million increase in early childhood services to establish a fully functioning Early Childhood Education and Care Department overseeing the coordination and expansion of critical services, including $26 million to expand child care assistance by changing eligibility from 150 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level; $15.6 million to provide raises for thousands of child care providers statewide; $19.9 million to expand public and private pre-K slots for 3- and 4-year-olds; $3 million to expand home visiting services; $3.5 million to expand Family, Infant, Toddler (FIT) early intervention program services; and $2.4 million to continue to implement provider rate increases.
• $320 million in non-recurring funds to create the new Early Childhood Trust Fund, which will provide a dedicated and self-sustaining revenue stream to fund early childhood programs into the future.
• A $200.3 million increase in the public schools budget for a total recurring budget of approximately $3.4 billion, including a second consecutive year of pay increases for educators and all school personnel; a $17 million increase to support a thriving educator ecosystem, including professional development and retention; a $12 million increase to support whole-child education and the bilingual and multicultural framework; $182 million in continued funding for the K-5 Plus and Extended Learning Time programs; $53 million to increase the at-risk index, building on the prior year’s $113.2 million increase; $12 million to support the implementation of a community school framework in schools across New Mexico; and a $12 million increase to support competency-based science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) standards and build up career technical and vocational education and apprenticeship programs.
What the governor asked for and what the legislature approved ended up being two different, if intrinsically related, things. That both branches of government agreed that such advances were a good thing is notable in a state famous for its partisan political battles.
Almost half of the state’s $7.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2021 will go to education; that’s an increase of about $500,000 over the previous year’s allocation from the state’s permanent fund, and it means that education spending has increased by more than 25 percent under the successor of former governor Susana Martinez, who was notorious for cutting budgets related to families and public education.
Legislators approved a 4 percent raise for public school teachers and employees. They also advanced the early childhood trust fund bill to the Governor’s desk and it will also no doubt become law. Teacher mentorship programs will also now be required in the public schools and retired New Mexico teachers can now return to the classroom—where there is a critical shortage of public school instructors—without affecting their pension plans. Though most agree that such increased funding bodes well for the state, there are some who say that an infusion of cash is not enough.
Two years ago, The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, in conjunction with two New Mexican families, filed suit against the state alleging that its public education failed to “to meet its constitutionally mandated responsibility to provide all public school students the programming and supports necessary to succeed.”
Last year, a judge in Santa Fe ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in this landmark suit, setting the stage for the current push for funding to correct the problem legislatively. According to a story published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, some of those who brought that legal action fear that all of that money is not enough to heal a problem that is basically embedded in the fabric of New Mexican culture.
Gail Evans, an attorney for the think tank responsible for the lawsuit, told the Santa Fe New Mexican last week, “They are looking at dollar amounts to put into the education budget instead of investing from the ground up into the programs we need.”
On the other hand, New Mexico House Speaker Brian Egolf told the same reporters from the New Mexican that, “Over the last 396 days, the state has increased K-12 education funding by three-quarters of a billion dollars. It’s unprecedented to have done that.”
No matter what perspective one looks at the current situation from, one thing is clear. Most of the money that the House Speaker references—the funding that Evans thinks is problematic in terms of which programs it addresses—comes from money related to the awesomely powerful yet highly volatile oil and gas industries of New Mexico.
It’s been said before and it bears repeating. New Mexico is the third-largest producer of oil and gas in the nation. The combined industries generate about $2.2 billion in direct revenue from property taxes, and they deposited said revenue into the state’s permanent fund coffers in 2018. Another $300 million in revenue comes from sales and income taxes from oil and gas concerns. Even more money comes to the state via royalties from oil and gas production on state and federal land.
In fiscal year 2019, oil and gas revenue in the state skyrocketed, reaching $3.1 billion. At the time those figures were released in January of 2020, New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Executive Director—and past environment secretary under Susana Martinez—Ryan Flynn told Albuquerque’s local daily newspaper that such historically high revenue contributed 39 percent of of all general fund revenue and also offered “unprecedented opportunities for investment in public education, state infrastructure and public safety.”
The same article notes that in FY 2019, the state received $1.06 billion in public education funding from oil and gas industries based in The Land of Enchantment.
That amount is sure to grow this year, after the approval of many of Lujan Grisham’s education initiatives passed through this year’s legislature.
It’s also worth noting that a considerable percentage of the activities undertaken by New Mexico’s official education champion—the oil and gas industry—are accomplished through a practice known as hydraulic fracturing.
According to published reports, there are close to 30,000 government-approved oil and gas wells currently operating in New Mexico. Although the state has not done enough to catalog the number of these wells that use hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—in their process, the US Energy Information Administration estimates that fracking accounts for about 67 percent of all natural gas production in the United States.
While environmentalists in New Mexico are extremely worried about fracking and its effects on both humans and the environment, industry experts warn that banning the practice would practically hobble New Mexico and the state’s education reform efforts.
It is reasonable to assume that fracking helps produce a good portion the natural gas necessary to supply many of this nation’s homes with heat. It is also clear that oil and gas revenue are one of the prime movers in getting funding to the various public education programs that New Mexico will depend upon in the future to improve learning outcomes here. That’s a fact.
And in story without a conclusion, where the past is a tragedy and the future has yet to be realized, New Mexicans continue to fill up their cars with gasoline as they wait and hope for a time when education—not dinosaurs—reigns supreme.