by Sen. Howie Morales
Public education in New Mexico is surely at a crossroads today. For the past eight years our state economy has been stuck in permanent recession mode, and that resulted in constant trimming and cuts to classroom budgets. Now, a combination of proposed deep federal cuts and indifference from Gov. Susana Martinez raises real questions about the quality of future learning.
Luckily, there are champions for education in the Legislature who drew the line on any more cuts to schools in the recent special session. It may be the best ray of hope for our children’s future.
The Trump administration just announced it intends to cut $11 billion from public education funding next year. For New Mexico, that would mean $18 million lost for key priorities such as smaller class sizes, after-school programs, reading tutors and the arts. Trump’s cuts truly are “cruel, callous and catastrophic,” as national education leader Randi Weingarten said recently in Santa Fe.
During the October, 2016 special session called to address plunging state revenues, New Mexico K-12 public schools took a $67 million hit. Three months later in the 2017 legislative session, schools again lost $46 million to balance the state budget. The governor instead had pushed for $120 million worth of cuts, calling schools’ prudent reserves “slush funds.” They are anything but.
The pipeline from our state’s K-12 schools to our public universities and colleges is crucial. But Gov. Martinez vetoed all the funding for the higher education system earlier this year, provoking a crisis. When she vetoed a $350 million new revenue package the Legislature sent her, it meant schools necessarily would be on the chopping block again, since educating our children accounts for 44 cents of every revenue dollar.
In the 60-day session, I pushed for a $1.50 cigarette tax increase – dedicated solely to funding classrooms – that would have ensured no further cuts to schools. It would have meant an additional $89 million more per year. While enjoying strong bipartisan support in the Senate, the governor opposed it, so it died in the House.
Now she is threatening to furlough tens of thousands of teachers and staff, despite state revenue having been stabilized. Our schools also are suffering a severe teacher shortage, as new graduates and veteran teachers leave for surrounding states where pay is better, and respect is greater.
Dedicated teachers in New Mexico have suffered mightily under the barrage of punitive Martinez policies, including teacher evaluations the courts have thrown out for being arbitrary, and an obsessive reliance on standardized testing. If that were not enough, teachers and school staff have seen no significant pay raise since 2006.
Now, the Public Education Department is planning to cut bilingual school programs. It also has denied more than 6,000 children valuable K-3 Plus summer learning seats in elementary schools across the state. It is a hugely popular 25-day academic program for kids in low-income schools that helps level the playing field.
The good news is that during the special session held last week, a bipartisan Senate said no to any more cuts to schools. Classrooms were our strong priority. We even included a measure in the budget bill to increase per-pupil funding by $10 million without raising taxes. We passed a responsible, balanced budget and sent it to the governor, again.
The state’s overreliance on declining oil and gas revenues is shortchanging our schools. It is wrong to subject our children to the double-whammy of federal and state cuts. The governor must do the right thing and sign the bills passed by the Legislature. No more cuts to our classrooms. Not one single cent.