Despite a mandate from the landmark Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, which ordered more resources for New Mexico’s English-language learner, Native American, low-income and special-education students, education advocates are worried school funding is still falling short.
“When I look at the [Public Education Department]’s proposed budget for this coming year, there’s no increase in services for special-education students. There is no increase in bilingual programming,” Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, told Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday night at an education town hall in Albuquerque.
“And although there was an increase in the Indian Education Fund, to really implement the Indian Education Act is going to take capacity building across the state.”
Evans asked Lujan Grisham to commit to more than the 5 percent overall budget increase and 4 percent salary raises outlined in the Public Education Department’s budget request earlier this month. In front of 250 parents, teachers and legislators, the governor, who was joined onstage by the state secretaries of public education, higher education and early childhood education, said there isn’t enough money to go around.
“So the Medicaid advocacy group would like to see $1 billion into Medicaid. The hospital advocacy group would like to see a billion dollars into hospitals. The infrastructure advocacy group would like to see $12 million into infrastructure. Higher education is going to ask for far more than is available. We need $300 million and that doesn’t even get us to universal early childhood education,” Lujan Grisham said. “We can’t be Pollyanna about how much it is going to take. We can’t lack courage, but I want to make sure I’m hitting every single one of those priorities in the most meaningful and strategic way.”
A handful of public school parents took the chance to speak directly to the governor to express frustration with New Mexico’s special-education system. One parent said she was devastated a special-education program was preventing her daughter from taking Navajo language classes. Another said he worried his daughter would be excluded from general education classes after a special-education enrollment process that leaves parents powerless.
After the Public Education Department received an additional $480 million for the current fiscal year — an increase of 17 percent over funds allocated in fiscal year 2019 — advocates want the state to continue to ramp up education funding to fill such gaps.
State economists projected New Mexico will receive $797 million in new revenue for fiscal year 2021. Earlier this month in front of the Legislative Finance Committee, Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart asked for a 5 percent increase, or $170 million, in funding next school year. According to the request, $93 million of that increase would provide school employees with 4 percent raises, while $54 million would go toward the per-pupil funding for at-risk students named in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit.
Despite Evans’ request for more funding for the Yazzie plaintiffs, state Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, a former special-education teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools, said in a phone interview that she shares Lujan Grisham’s call for patience.
“I think the governor did a good job of laying out the huge needs we have in this state not just in education but in behavioral health, Medicaid, hospitals, child care and all of these agencies with very large funding requests. It’s tricky to help all ships rise,” Stewart said. “I’m still hopeful we can increase the budget request from [the Education Department] to something more in line with what we talk about in education.”
Stewart said increasing salaries beyond 4 percent to attract and retain teachers was her top priority for the Public Education Department budget. The National Education Association-New Mexico on Thursday presented polling to the Legislative Education Study Committee that says 85 percent of New Mexicans support further increasing teacher pay. The poll was conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research.
“The public wants Santa Fe to take more big steps forward to support education,” National Education Association-New Mexico President Mary Parr-Sanchez said. “It is a mark of the governor’s leadership to acknowledge our state is far from reaching our goals, and last year’s funding increases [were] only a needed first step.”
At the town hall, Lujan Grisham outlined a proposal to create an endowment fund for early childhood education that could one day pay for universal prekindergarten for the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds. She also championed the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship, which will provide free tuition at public community colleges and universities for full-time students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and meet a host of other requirements. And she pledged collaboration between the state’s early childhood, K-12 and higher education systems.
When a high school science teacher told the governor she was contemplating leaving her job because of overcrowded classes, Lujan Grisham offered her condolences.
“Don’t leave. We need you. We believe in you and we know it’s hard,” Lujan Grisham said. “The best thing I can do, because I can’t fix it tomorrow in your classroom I’m pretty sure, but I can pay attention so you know that’s coming. I can apologize for every state and the federal government that says that education is a priority but never does anything about it.”