Ruling in K-12 funding lawsuit is movement in right direction

by Amber Wallin, MPA
June 24, 2018

I believe in New Mexico. Like many generations before me, and like my own two children, I was born and raised in New Mexico. My heart, my past, and my future are here. I believe in our cultures, our land, and our people. I also believe that all of our children should have access to the opportunities that lead to success in school and later in life. When all children can reach their potential, we all benefit. But as I testified last year in the lawsuit being brought against the state for underfunding education, New Mexico has not been doing a great job of ensuring adequate opportunities for all of our kids to thrive and succeed. We are ranked 50th in education and 50th in overall child well-being according to the KIDS COUNT index. Despite our rich cultural diversity, incredible natural beauty, and strong communities, our kids face higher hurdles to success than kids in other states.

What’s more, in New Mexico, as across the nation, children of color and children from low-income families often face serious challenges at even greater rates than their peers. They are more likely to be hungry, to live in poverty, and to be behind even before they enter the schoolhouse doors. They are also more likely to go to schools that are underfunded and that struggle to attract and retain teachers.

These children come from great communities and strong families, and they are incredibly resilient and just as capable as any other children. But they face an opportunity gap that comes from being served by an educational system that is under-resourced and cut from a culturally biased cloth. Too many schools lack nurses, librarians, basic classroom supplies, and resources for subjects, like music and art that enrich learning. They don’t have funding to adequately pay teachers, support staff, and tutors that can give extra attention to kids who need it the most. And not only are services inadequate to address the challenges that many kids face, but the curriculum and standardized tests used in our nation’s schools are also largely Anglo-centric and mono-linguistic, even in states like our own where other languages were spoken here long before English. Our nation’s child population will be minority-majority by 2030. If our schools can’t meet the cultural needs of our student body today, we stand to leave many more children behind in the future.

New Mexico is out front on this demographic change. Seventy five percent of our kids are kids of color. We have the second highest rate of children who belong to non-white races and ethnicities (only Hawaii has a higher share of non-white children). We also have the highest rate of child poverty. In other words, a bigger share of New Mexico children face barriers to success than in any other state. So while our cultural diversity is fundamental to our state’s identity and is one of the things that makes New Mexico a unique and enchanting place, many of our kids are struggling.

Given the many challenges faced by our children, New Mexico should be making whatever investments are necessary to ensure that every child has the opportunity to thrive and achieve success.

Instead, over the last decade New Mexico has made some of the deepest cuts to K-12 education in the country. While some funding was restored during the 2018 legislative session, we are still far behind where we should be on a per-student, inflation-adjusted basis. A study conducted by economist Steven Barro of the 2014-15 school year found that New Mexico’s education system is underfunded by approximately $600 million. That kind of funding gap is not going to close the opportunity gap. A full and robust education system that creates plentiful opportunities for all children and supports the highly qualified teachers, administrators, and other staff that facilitate success for our kids will start to close that gap.

Another effective way to close the opportunity gap is to ensure that, in their earliest years, children are receiving the care and learning necessary to foster the rapid brain development that occurs between birth and the age of five. High-quality early childhood care and education services have been proven to help children succeed throughout their school years and beyond. Because pre-K has such positive impacts on K-12 learning, it was allowed to be part of the lawsuit.

When the state enacted its pre-kindergarten program in 2005, the plan was to offer universal NM Pre-K to all four-year olds within seven years. At that benchmark, however, just 16 percent of our four-year olds were enrolled in NM Pre-K. While enrollment levels have steadily increased, we’re still nowhere near offering pre-K to all four-year olds. Despite the fact that NM Pre-K has been proven to increase academic success, and despite our state’s huge need, some lawmakers continue to refuse to both raise enough revenue to fully fund the program and to allow voters to decide whether to complete the NM Pre-K roll-out as planned by using a tiny portion of the state’s nearly $18 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund. Instead, we’ve only incrementally and inadequately increased funding for early education programs, while we’ve continued to starve our K-12 education system.

Now, after weeks of testimony, including hours of my own, the judge has ruled that New Mexico is not meeting its constitutional obligation to sufficiently fund education for all New Mexico children. That the current administration spent public funds to argue that our schools are sufficiently funded is shameful. The administration should not waste further funding by appealing this decision and, if it does, the gubernatorial candidates should let it be known whether they will continue the appeal if elected or if they will come up with a plan to make the necessary investments in our state’s children.

I believe in our state, and I believe in the diversity, resilience, and strength of our people. I also believe in our ability to do right by our communities and by our kids. It is past time for the state to ensure that every child enters school ready to learn and that they are enrolled in a well-resourced educational system that is responsive to their cultural identity.

Amber Wallin is deputy director for New Mexico Voices for Children.