When Think New Mexico puts out an annual report, its findings often lead to change. The nonprofit think tank has helped push for all-day kindergarten, Public Regulation Commission reform and removing the gross receipts tax on food, to name just a few initiatives.
This year, Think New Mexico wants to reform how public schools spend their dollars.
The report, “Improving our Public Schools By Reallocating Dollars from Administration to the Classroom”, makes sense at a visceral level. Of course, public schools must spend precious dollars wisely, especially by directing more money to helping children learn than paying adults. We hope this report prompts a brisk conversation on the best way to spend education dollars. With New Mexico perennially short of funds, it is essential to spend the dollars we do have in the best manner possible.
However, this subject is complicated. Comparisons are difficult, considering the model that big districts such as Albuquerque and Santa Fe are being asked to emulate is little Texico.
There is much to admire in Texico, 10 miles east of Clovis along the Texas border. With 560 students, the district boasted a 95 percent graduation rate in 2016, the highest in the state. In 2017, the district was seventh in the state for reading and ninth for math, according to the Think New Mexico study. Texico High School has been honored as a National Blue Ribbon School, a high achievement.
The key to such success? Think New Mexico officials credit Texico with spending more dollars on the classroom. Central office is just a superintendent, business manager and a secretary, and the district ranks 18th for efficiency in how its budget flows to the classroom. To reform education in New Mexico, the group believes more districts should follow suit.
This is an educational reform most people would support. Spend more dollars on kids. The trouble is, education is seldom that simple. So-called administrative costs in bigger districts do things like run the special-education programs, expenses many smaller districts do not have. (In fact, it’s an open secret in New Mexico that families in need of special services often move to Albuquerque, where a bigger district has the resources they require.)
Bigger districts operate more bus routes, have bigger food service operations and even need additional people just to hire the teachers and principals to staff the schools. Albuquerque Public Schools has 85,336 students and Santa Fe has 13,347. The idea that economies of scale always favor big districts only works up to a certain point; after, the district likely is burdened by what it costs just to keep the doors open.
All of that said, Think New Mexico is good at dissecting a problem, gathering information and showing different ways to approach the status quo. The premise that if a district can spend less at the top there will be more to spend in the classroom is correct. As always, Think New Mexico offers ways to reach that goal.
Noted in the report is the burden of reporting information to the state — all the data being collected has to be gathered, input and sent along to bureaucrats at the Public Education Department. A 2016 Thornburg Foundation study found that districts and charter schools use some 15,000 staff hours complying with reporting requirements, spending some “66 percent more resources on reporting than peers in states with advance data collection systems.”
With 140 reports required each year from every district and charter — about 20 percent required by the federal government, according to Think New Mexico — there is clearly room to cut back. The Thornburg report estimated that New Mexico spends about $212 per student each year to comply with reporting requirements. Reduce reporting costs, and those dollars could be spent in the classroom. Think New Mexico believes more than $46.5 million could be spent in classrooms if reporting costs were reduced by two-thirds.
Another area to examine would be using new energy technologies to reduce recurring costs for electricity, water and heat. Santa Fe, while being scolded for spending more than Gadsden Independent Schools on administration, excels in operating and managing school facilities. It is the most efficient in the state, spending only $624 per student compared to the state average of $1,682. That’s happened because Santa Fe invested capital dollars in energy efficiency and solar power at its school sites. This could be duplicated across the state and would be good for the planet and the pocketbook.
It also would not hurt — even without new laws — for Santa Fe to look at how Gadsden is organized so that it spends $219 per pupil on administrative costs, compared to Santa Fe’s $350 per pupil, according to the report’s figures. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be more efficient, especially when those dollars can be spent closer to the students. One particular example is the division of resources in Las Vegas, N.M., where despite a town consolidation decades ago, two separate school districts still operate. All of this is worthy of study.
More money spent on students. Fewer dollars directed toward administration. Worthwhile reform, indeed.