Lawmakers and governor have multiple proposals to reform public education

K-12 and higher education budgets total more than half of all state spending and will be prime for debate on how to move New Mexico schools forward.

By: - January 17, 2024 3:07 am

The governor’s budget proposal released before the 30-day legislative session proposes $6 billion in K-12 and higher education funding combined. (Photo by Anna Padilla for Source NM)

New Mexico Democrats touted their education reform policies as some of the best in the country on the first day of the legislative session, calling the state a leader in supporting families and trying to find solutions for student’s lagging math and literacy levels.

That is in stark contrast to student outcomes that rank as some of the worst in the nation on several metrics, and findings from the landmark ruling Yazzie-Martinez that mandates public education reform.

Still, lawmakers have a job to do and they say there will be a push for an expansion of such programs, such as structured literacy curriculum, which teaches students to decode words in a systematic way to make complex information easier to understand.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham requested $90 million in literacy support and professional intervention in struggling schools during her State of the State speech on Tuesday.

Lawmaker, educator, wants language programs to lead public school education reform

“We need to ensure our school districts and our legislature and the executive branch are accountable for their results,” she said. “We need to guarantee that the legislature’s billions in public education are going to the right places and leading to better outcomes.”

New Mexico has the worst literacy rate in the country, with 79% of fourth grade students reading below grade level, according to the children’s literacy nonprofit Reading is Fundamental.

The governor’s budget proposal released before the 30-day legislative session proposes $6 billion in K-12 and higher education funding combined. Her policies focus on adding financial support for families and students, expanding availability of child care and learning opportunities, and improving student success by bolstering attendance and childhood literacy.

Lujan Grisham also promised to deliver on extended classroom time, saying in her speech that more time in the classroom produces better results for students. Smaller, rural school districts as well as Native communities have criticized the plan as a threat to local authority and creating more hurdles for students who live far away.

Democratic leaders, which run majorities in the state House and Senate, emphasized that these projects are long investments, and that success will improve over time. Lawmakers said they’ve heard praise for their initiatives in national conversations about education reform.

“We’ve made historic investments,” said House Speaker Javier Martinez (D-Albuquerque). “Time after time everybody’s pointing out New Mexico as a model, but it’s a 20-year project.”

Republicans shot back at the continuation of the governor’s current education initiatives, blaming ineffective policies and COVID-19 shutdowns for the state’s education woes. 

Republicans called for more local control, as well as policies to bring more qualified teachers to New Mexico’s public schools.

“(Communities) elect individuals into the school boards that have the best eyes, they are the feet on the ground, they are for the community,” said Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca (R-Belen) about bringing the state into compliance on Yazzie-Martinez. “But instead what do we do? We go in there with (the Public Education Department) and we step on the school boards a lot of the time…and basically take control. Why are we electing school boards then?”

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The landmark Yazzie-Martinez case determined that New Mexico’s public schools were violating the constitutional rights of the majority of the state’s students by failing to provide a comprehensive education.

Last week, Republicans made their own case for education reform with the announcement of a scholarship tax credit aimed at helping low-income families send their children to private schools. 

Under that proposal, businesses and individuals could contribute to fund school tuition organizations that provide scholarships to low-income students attending private schools. Contributors would receive a “dollar-for-dollar” tax credit of up to $700 for individuals and $1,400 for married couples.

Meanwhile, two Democrats have submitted proposals to directly address the Yazzie-Martinez ruling and bring the state into compliance under its orders.

The ruling compelled the state to create culturally-competent programs for New Mexico’s diverse student population, bolster bilingual education and improve literacy rates. 

There is $50 million in the Legislature’s proposed budget for a tribal education trust fund, which Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo) spearheaded last year. He told New Mexico In Depth that top lawmakers promised doubling the funding to $100 million.

Lente’s tribal education trust fund bill died last year after disagreements between tribes about the funding distribution model. The trust fund faced the same concerns at an Indian Affairs Committee meeting in November.

Lawmakers will again push for more tribal control over how Indigenous children are educated

House Bill 39, introduced by Rep. Yanira Gurrola (D-Albuquerque) would invest more than $27 million in public colleges, universities and tribal colleges for bilingual education, culturally-relevant education and student health. It includes creating pipelines from these bilingual language programs for aspiring educators to stay in New Mexico. If passed and signed, the bill contains 40 items that would receive money from the general fund.

“If we don’t act now, we’re going to regret it later,” Gurrola said. “This bill is about solutions and creating a plan to address what students are facing in their classrooms.”

Democrats said bolstering education through career technical education, after-school programs and attracting teachers with better pay would create a strong workforce in the future to meet New Mexico’s growth, citing record state revenues to put toward education.

“Those were commitments we made last year, please expect us to build on those this year,” said Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces). “That increases student engagement, gives back more to our communities and helps build the workforce for the future.”

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Megan Taros
Megan Taros

Megan Taros is a freelance reporter for Source NM. She is born and raised in the harbor area of Los Angeles where she began her career covering higher education and local government. She previously launched the South Phoenix beat at the Arizona Republic where she covered race and equity in one of the largest communities of color in the state. She also launched the Latino affairs beat at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she covered racial and economic inequality in Queens, New York.